The problem with a great writer is that unless they are writing about something interesting and engaging, all their skill is going to waste. It is always risky when someone tries to idealize pop culture, declaring top-40 radio to be the work of geniuses, and that kitschy shows like Saved By The Bell accurately represent society’s ills. It is a risk Chuck Klosterman will hopefully steer clear of after his vapid, sardonic, albeit mildly entertaining book of essays, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, because his skill as a writer is immense, and it is painful to see it go to waste on such mundane topics as a Guns N’ Roses cover band from South Carolina.
About half way through Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Klosterman finally appears to do something right- he takes his immense skill and intelligence and addresses the relevant and difficult topic of racism. In a chapter entitled “8 33” (the odd name is never explained) Klosterman explains his fear of watching Spike Lee movies. What scares him most about Lee’s films is the dreaded basketball conversation; “A black guy and a white guy are going to get into an argument over basketball, and the debate will focus on the fact that the black guy loves the Lakers and the white guy loves the Celtics.” He goes on to explain that this trivial difference actually represents the hidden problem of white people rooting for a team with white stars (the Celtics), and blacks doing likewise. After this probing introduction, he takes the chapter in a different direction- he talks about basketball. All talk of racism ceases until he attempts unsuccessfully to draw all of the basketball strategy he’s been discussing for the previous 8 pages back to racial divisions in the essay’s conclusion. And here is my problem with the book, and maybe with Klosterman in general; the book is the equivalent of having a conversation with Ghandi, but instead of having him speak about his own life, his philosophy, or other relevant issues, all he wants to talk about is socks- knee socks, argyle socks, and running socks. It might be interesting to hear, but you know he can do better.
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs starts out with its best essay, the one that led me to buy a copy of the book. “This is Emo” opens the book talking about the connection between, as Klosterman describes, hammy and derivative bands like Coldplay and Travis, Lloyd Dobbler, the protagonist of the romantic comedy Say Anything, and the authors own sexual frustrations. Klosterman’s problem is that he feels unable to compete with the perfect guys like Dobbler or Coldplay singer Chris Martin, because they manage to strike the perfect balance between sensitive, non-aggressive, self-effacing nice guys and mysterious, risk-taking tough guys. Because of this, while a girl he was interested in croons along with Martin at a concert in Seattle, he sits at a boring party in New York which he only attended to “per chance” bump into her. The story is engaging, funny and, for someone who likes Coldplay but sees a degree of falsity in their sincerity, compelling. Even more interesting than this first story is the table of contents page, which is set up like a mixtape with each essay being a new song, in which Klosterman professes his love for both Neko Case and Neil Young. The page-long interludes between the different essays also offer cheap, quick laughs. One other mordantly funny essay comes early, as Klosterman reflects on the real-life implications of the computer game, The Sims.
Unfortunately, unlike Dave Sedaris whose essays are always highly personal and sometimes sacrifice humor for reality, or Al Franken, whose books of essays are consistently political and only rarely delve into his own life, Klosterman’s topic of choice is obscure pop culture. With the exception of this first chapter, very little of the book deals with Klosterman’s own life or his views on any substantial topic. Instead he focuses on his love/hate relationship with Saved By The Bell, the American obsession with Pamela Anderson Lee, and Tom Cruises performance in Vanilla Sky. And frankly, although the book is well written and occasionally very funny, the topics are overall vapid, obscure, or ultra-critical. It is understandable that a self proclaimed member of Generation X hates a lot of things, but it would certainly be a more engaging read had he chose to focus on any things he liked. There is one more essay, “I, Rock Chump” that has a large appeal to this reviewer, because it delves into the mentality of music critics (Klosterman is a senior writer at Spin Magazine), and the overall nerdiness of the profession. Anyone who is not interested in the specific field would probably find the writing too foreign to take any pleasure in it.
If you’ve got a free afternoon and want to relive some pop culture nostalgia, such as mid 90s singer-songwriter Lisa Loeb, or country musician/bigot Toby Keith, both of whom get their own chapters in the book, then Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs will surely entertain and engage. Klosterman bills the book as “a low culture manifesto,” and he’s got half of that right; it surely is low-cultured. However, after reading the whole book, one wished Klosterman would take his considerable skill and wit and take on a topic of relevance. Tell us about yourself, Chuck; that’s something I’d pay to read.
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto
by Chuck Klosterman
Simon & Schuster