While I personally am not a fan of the self-indulgent memoir and more in favor of memoirists who balance personal divulgence with cohesive storytelling, indulgence can be forgiven in the hands of a self-deprecating, dryly humorous author like Chuck Klosterman. An author, essayist, and rock critic with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, Klosterman makes Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story an honest, amusing and at times thought-provoking existential treatise on the rock stars whose fame only peaked once they kicked the bucket.
Upon being given an assignment to write an article for Spin magazine on society’s relationship with dead rock stars, Klosterman embarks on a three-week road trip that takes him everywhere from the big cities of New York and Minneapolis to the countryside of Montana and Mississippi, visiting the historic death sites of rock stars. During this time, Klosterman juggles relationships with three different women, does some recreational drugs—at some point snorting cocaine at the site of the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island—and wonders whether he has Cotard’s syndrome, a rare mental disorder that deludes a person into believing they’re dead. Along the way he meets some colorful characters, such as Kurt Cobain devotees who maintain the belief that he was murdered, a drunken Uma Thurman lookalike who climbs on the roof of a building in heels, and a Cracker Barrel waitress who likes Franz Kafka.
Among Klosterman’s philosophical musings on the deaths of rock stars—whether by accident (Duane Allman) or suicide (Kurt Cobain), during a time of career success (Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crash) or fading popularity (Elvis Presley’s overdose)—are his commentaries on social hypocrisy; his meditations on what song he’d like to play while committing suicide; and an outlandish theory about Radiohead’s album Kid A unintentionally predicting the events of 9/11. Needless to say this guy is all over the place, and for every insight he offers, there’s twice as many ruminations on an unrelated topic.
While a lack of direction, as well as the absence of any conclusion, pervades the memoir, its saving grace is that Klosterman never pretends his narrative is anything more than it is. His unpretentious, self-deprecatory tone and willingness to admit his faults as a memoirist—and as a person—gives it a sort of charm, and makes him a relatable and entertaining narrator, with plenty of humor and wit to move the story along.
In short, don’t go looking for any profound insight on life, death, and rock’n’roll; just for a steady 256 pages of travel, philosophizing, and an endless sea of pop culture references. For those wanting more, Klosterman is also the author of the nonfiction book Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota; a collection of essays entitled Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto; and two novels, Downtown Owl and The Visible Man; to name a few.