Midway through Chuck Klosterman's latest book, Killing Yourself to Live, the rock writer is 16 days into a two-and-a-half-week road trip when he finds himself organizing all the females in his life into the members of KISS they most resemble. A woman named Diane is Gene Simmons ("She's all about the bottom line. She demands attention"); another named Quincy is Ace Frehley ("Stoned, cool, and the personality I secretly want to be"); and an actress he briefly dated is post-Peter Criss drummer Eric Carr.
But before going too far into the minutiae of these comparisons, he stops himself. "Has it really come to this?" he wonders. "Have I become so reliant on popular culture that it's the only way I can understand anything?" Klosterman certainly hopes not, but nevertheless continues, hilariously noting even the exes who compare to studio-only and temporary members of the legendary rock band. Reaching the end, and aware that he's completely pitiful, Klosterman writes, "It's a miracle any woman has ever kissed me."
Klosterman, a senior writer for Spin magazine and columnist for Esquire, may sometimes question his fanatic engagement with pop culture, but he also lives, breathes, and writes by it. He knows the exact number of CDs he owns (2,233) and is threatened by those whose collections number more. He admits to watching Saved by the Bell for two hours every day, and he'll dissect Radiohead's Kid A so acutely he can draw the conclusion that Thom Yorke accidentally predicted the events of 9/11 (in an essay that's actually quite genius). Klosterman puts into print all the geeky conversations most of us keep in our heads, making public the trivial fascinations that turn into obsessions over time.
The concept for Killing Yourself to Live, Klosterman's third book of nonfiction, originated in a Spin assignment. The magazine sent him across the country to write about landmarks haunted by the deaths of such memorable rock stars as Jeff Buckley, Buddy Holly, and Kurt Cobain. Klosterman was hoping to ultimately answer the query, "Is dying good for your career?" but ended up, per usual, digressing onto elements of his own life along the way. The Spin story about the famous icons ran in December 2003, while the more personal and tangential moments of the lonely 18-day road trip became a book, one focused less on the ghosts of legends and more on the ghosts of relationships past.
As anyone who has read his previous books Fargo Rock City or Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs knows, Klosterman's witty observations are delivered as comfortably and engagingly as a back-bar conversation with an old friend. And although you may not agree with every thesis he posits—for example, that Rod Stewart has "the single-greatest male singing voice of the rock era"—he makes his points in such an entertaining manner it becomes more about enjoying the argument than being swayed to his side of it.
Killing Yourself's main focus, though, is Klosterman's struggle with trying to evaluate and accept where his relationships with various women currently stand. He discusses past memories and missteps with sadness, hilarity, heartbreak, and hope—and of course, multiple cultural references. "If Diane is like the woman from the song 'Jolene,'" he writes, "Lenore is like a combination of the girl described in 'Chantilly Lace' (minus the ponytail)." So while Klosterman compares the philosophical similarities between "Slow Ride" and "Free Ride" and discusses the possible tension in Eric Clapton and George Harrison's friendship, he's also turning the microscope on himself, applying the same amount of humor and brutal honesty to the dissection of his own flings and affairs.
Of course, this personal tactic isn't for everyone. Towards the end of Killing Yourself, Klosterman is waiting to fly home when he phones a coworker, eager to share his idea for a new book. "I've been inside a car for 1,000 years, worrying about women and thinking about death and playing KISS and Radiohead and all this other shit, and—for some reason—I keep writing all this stuff down, and I don't exactly know why," he admits. Ultimately she pleads with him to not turn his past loves into a book (citing the subject matter as "dubious")—but he obviously didn't listen. And thank god for that, because for some, love, death, and rock 'n' roll, as Klosterman notes, really are one and the same.