A road trip to nowhere

July 31, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun Staff



By Chuck Klosterman. Scribner. 256 pages.

Chuck Klosterman is smart enough to recognize the shortcomings in much of the writing of his own generation. It's self-referential, gimmicky and insincere. Too bad Klosterman, 33, can't overcome those weaknesses in his own book, Killing Yourself to Live, an account of his road trip to places where rock musicians died and a history of his own dysfunctional relationships with women.

The conceit of the book -- that dying is the best career move a rock star can make -- is nothing new, and Klosterman makes little effort to prove the point, anyway. Instead, he obsesses over the women in his life, engaging in tedious, never-ending fantasy conversations with them as he drives his Ford Taurus across the country with 600 CDs in the back seat.

Klosterman, a senior writer for Spin magazine, tries to defuse criticism by acknowledging the book's problems early on. He imagines the reader having a discussion with someone about the book and writes: "In all probability, you will also complain about the author's reliance on self-indulgent, postmodern self-awareness, which will prompt the person you're conversing with to criticize the influence of Dave Eggers on the memoir-writing genre."

No argument there. The book (which takes its title from a Black Sabbath song) is self-indulgent and self-aware, and the blame for that rests only with Klosterman, not Eggers, whose 2000 memoir about raising his younger brother after their parents died had more heart and honest emotion on a single page than anything Klosterman can conjure up from his 6,557-mile road trip from Rhode Island to Seattle.

He recounts one story that has the potential to be meaningful and feel real. It's about a friend who died of cancer in January 2000. A few weeks after the funeral, Klosterman was driving through rural Ohio when the Replacements song "Bastards of Young" came on. He began to cry uncontrollably. His friend, Thad, adored the Replacements and that was his favorite song.

Now, Klosterman says, he nearly weeps whenever he thinks of the Replacements. "I can't help but wonder," he writes, "if my sincere love for Thad has become an excuse to be insincerely miserable about something else entirely."

At this point, you think Klosterman is going somewhere interesting. Perhaps we're going to learn something about music and how it plays on our emotions. But then Klosterman writes, "Seeing no resolution to my existential recognition of loss, I decide to eat lunch."

So after trying to deal with a friend's death in an honest way, Klosterman chickens out, makes a joke and changes the subject. But he had given fair warning. Earlier, Klosterman had written, "I honestly believe that people of my generation despise authenticity, mostly because they're all so envious of it."

Then the author must be an exemplar of his generation.

He also owns a lot of CDs -- 2,233, he says, including everything Britney Spears has ever released. He sees much in his life through the prism of music, especially rock music -- very often obscure rock music. He describes one of his former girlfriends as "akin to the girl in Ben Folds Five's 'Kate,' multiplied by the woman in Sloan's 'Underwhelmed,' divided by the person Evan Dando sings about in the Lemonheads' slacked-up, Raymond Carver-esque dope ballad 'Buddy.' "

If you can't immediately recall the characters in those songs, then that description of his ex-girlfriend is pretty much meaningless. Klosterman doesn't care.

His descriptions of the places he visits on this morbid road trip aren't much better. He notes little about Graceland other than that it makes him embarrassed to be an American. He spends about a paragraph on the intersection in Macon, Ga., where two members of the Allman Brothers -- Duane Allman and Berry Oakley -- died in separate motorcycle accidents, and mostly what he says is that he has little sympathy for people who die in motorcycle accidents.

And so the book is left to dwell on a handful of women who Klosterman doesn't even seem to like much anymore. One will end up marrying someone else, but he doesn't care. Another will dump him, but he doesn't care about that, either. Five pages from the end, he writes, "[I]t occurs to me that I am not a serious person, and that I do not have any understanding of death, and that I am looking for nothing."

It would have been nice if he had told us a little sooner.

Stephen Kiehl covers pop culture for The Sun.

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