Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story

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Reading a book by Chuck Klosterman is like reading a letter from your best friend. Like any of your friends, you may not agree with everything he says, or even care about everything he’s talking about, but Chuck doesn’t care and neither do you because he writes in such a way that makes you feel comfortable, entertained, and like you want to keep him as your friend.

The book reads somewhat like a comedian’s monologue. But it’s an unexpected comedic path you’re led down. Indeed, some parts of it will suddenly make you giggle or cackle when you least expect it. It’s like being jumped out at from behind the corner of a dark alley, but instead of a knife the perpetrator squirts a water pistol and you’re startled into laughter. Killing Yourself to Live is a non-fiction book. Mostly non-fiction, that is. It’s subtitled 85% of a True Story, giving Chuck a fifteen percent margin of error for details and conversation recall. The subtitle is meant to be humorous but it also sets an irony for the tale Chuck is about to unfold. By stating upfront that his book is only partially true it becomes more true and hence a more believable and visceral experience than other “non-fiction” books.

Like in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck’s previous book, Killing Yourself to Live examines the world under a pop culture microscope. But unlike Cocoa Puffs, which is a series of essays on different topics, Killing Yourself is strung together by a thematic road-trip Chuck takes from New York to Seattle. He stops at various towns along the way, small and large, to visit places where rock musicians breathed their last breath. That’s right, dead rock n’ rollers. After going into a diatribe about packing, Chuck states early on in the book, “Let me begin by saying this: Death is a part of life. Generally, it’s the shortest part of life, usually occurring near the end. However, this is not necessarily true for rock stars; sometimes rock starts don’t start living until they die. I want to understand why that is.” And so Chuck invites us along shotgun, with a humorous gesture you can’t resist, on his journey of deceased musical icon exploration. That in itself would be enough subject matter for the average pop culture book, but Chuck goes beyond that (or should I say egresses that?) and shares with us, among other interesting and humorous social commentaries, intimate details about his own life, most predominately being the various women in his life. Like a kind of Eagles song subject matter, Chuck digresses into long sections about the loves of his life, past, present and future. It’s off the track of the book’s main subject matter, yes, but it’s so voyeuristic in a literary sense that we don’t care. More importantly, it endears Chuck to us the readers and makes us trust what else he has to say.

The book is subdivided into the days of his trip, wherein each chapter is the current trip day. You might think you’d find yourself wondering in a book about dead rock stars why is the author taking time to tell us about his football practice glory days, the Arkansas Victory Television Network, his adoration of KISS, how to get high with a drinking straw and a car cigarette lighter, how Radiohead’s Kid A predicted the events of September 11th, or about his semi-annual “strange summers”, but Klosterman writes in such a reader friendly free-flow style that it all seems to coalesce into a unified whole. At the beginning of the chapter titled The Eighth Day, eight days into his road trip, Chuck writes: “You know what’s the best part of driving by yourself? Talk radio. Talk Radio offers no genuine insight about anything, but I always feel like I am learning something; I always feel like I suddenly understand all the people I normally can’t relate to at all.” This, and other digressive passages, like death itself, seems perfectly natural in Chuck’s writing voice.

Chuck does adhere to a structure throughout though. There’s plenty of factual and opinion related material in regards to non-living music makers. (Cobain, Michael Hutchence, Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson, and yes, Elvis too.) In the middle he states: “So here is the big question: Is dying good for your career? Cynics always assume that it is, but I’m not so sure anymore. And now that I’ve been to Memphis, I’m not sure if I even care.” And neither do we. By this time, so imbued with Chuck’s rambling journey as we are, we’ve forgotten what this trip was supposed to be about. We just want to read some more from our friend.

In the end, Chuck makes no conclusions, has no epiphany, and doesn’t sum up any findings about why the death of a rock star makes them the admired rock star they are. Instead Chuck only laments about his eventual loss of love and what death of love or life means to him. Suggesting that any posthumous popularity that comes from anyone’s death, rock star or not, is up to the individual. George Harrison probably said it best when he sang, “Life goes on within you and without you.” Although he ends on a sad but quirky chord, it’s exactly consistent with what we have come to expect from Chuck. And in a book that examines death, an ending of flowers and sweetness would seem out of place.

Killing Yourself to Live is a fun, funny, and fundamental read. Chuck’s jovial observations about life, death, and love will keep you reading and smiling. The book’s subtitle is 85% of a True Story. This mostly non-fiction tale has a cinematic milieu to it. Don’t be surprised if you see Killing Yourself to Live splashed across the marquee of your local milliplex in the near future.

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