Pros: Wacky and incisive. Entertaining throughout.
Cons: No recipes.
I'm not really sure what prompted me to seek out this book. I'd never heard of Chuck Klosterman before, and retired NBA failures, the evolution of NFL offensive strategy and the significance of the Swedish super-group ABBA aren't topics that would normally attract my interest. Once I had the book in my hands, I suspected further disappointment, as I mistakenly assumed that the thirteen included essays had all been published previously - a scenario akin to eating three-day-old leftovers. However, I have to confess that the intriguing title, Eating the Dinosaur, and the eye-catching cover illustration - a Triceratops with the various cuts of beef outlined in white dashed lines - proved to be an irresistible attraction. Can you really tell a book by its cover? What does Triceratops brisket taste like? My curiosity was piqued.
Chuck Klosterman (b. 1972) has been a best-selling author and regular contributor to the New York Times and ESPN, among other media outlets, for the past fifteen years. He focuses mostly on sports, film and music, but in Eating the Dinosaur he reveals that his interests run the gamut -- from the feasibility of time travel to the Unabomber to the love life of Ralph Nader. Over about 225 pages, in an often absurd and consistently humorous manner, Klosterman hits dozens of American cultural touchstones from the 1970s to the present day, including grunge, country and disco music, dozens of movies and TV shows, the NBA, the NFL and countless other icons like Pepsi, Obama and Woody Allen.
I really enjoyed the opportunity to see Klosterman work his magic. This self-proclaimed contrarian typically starts out with some ridiculous premise - the hidden parallels between the Branch Davidians and Nirvana or the underlying similarities between AC/DC and ABBA - and then explores it from top to bottom, from inside and out, while sober and while drunk. He chops each essay into a multitude of small fragments, allowing him to ramble tangentially and endlessly, but very entertainingly. Eschewing the traditional thesis/evidence/conclusion format, he winds around and around his subject, skating figure eights, and just when I think he can't have anything more to say, he produces a few more iterations, squeezing every last drop out of a seemingly boring topic like Ralph Sampson, the former NBA star.
"Here's a question I like to ask people when I'm 5/8 drunk: Let's say you had the ability to make a very brief phone call into your own past. You are (somehow) given the opportunity to phone yourself as a teenager; in short, you will be able to communicate with the fifteen-year-old version of you. However, you will only get to talk to your former self for fifteen seconds. As such, there's no way you will be able to explain who you are, where or when you're calling from, or what any of this lunacy is supposed to signify. You will only be able to give the younger version of yourself a fleeting, abstract message of unclear origin."
I found each essay to be crammed full of imagination and creativity, never succumbing to the urge to be critical or condescending - what I've come to expect from most who write about modern society. Klosterman appears to love mindless modern media and entertainment as much or more than anyone. He seems to have an unquenchable thirst for more and more, from Weezer, to The Real World, to Garth Brooks, to Animal Collective. I confess - I'm too old - I had to look that last one up.
What he does best is take these seemingly trivial topics and use them to explore the greater issues of modern civilization: freedom and individuality versus community and the rule of law, mindless consumerism versus artistic virtue, celebrity and notoriety versus merit and quality. Despite the weighty topics, I never once found the writing boring, nor did I have flashbacks to dry college sociology lectures. I'm not sure I learned any of the answers to these big modern questions, but I certainly had fun reading Klosterman's repeated attempts to unravel them. His cheerful, clever and enthusiastic approach and his easy and energetic writing style were a thick layer of delicious icing on the cake.
"Low self-esteem is a totally meaningless designation simply because there's no extension of human behavior that doesn't qualify. If you have no self-confidence, you are believed to possess low self-esteem; if you have an abundance of self-confidence, it's assumed your arrogance is an attempt to overcompensate for a lack of self-esteem. I don't think I've ever met a person with the "correct" level of self-esteem."
Eating the Dinosaur - the title refers to one of the few benefits of time travel - is a consistently funny, well written and intellectually stimulating trip through the mind of one borderline crazy mass media addict. I'll be seeking out more of Klosterman and I'm glad that his goofy title proved so tempting. By the way, dinosaur brisket tastes just like chicken. I'll have mine with barbecue sauce and a diet Pepsi.