I WEAR THE BLACK HAT. By Chuck Klosterman. Scribner. 224 pages. $25.
Chuck Klosterman, the author of such influential works of pop anthropology as "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs" and "Fargo Rock City," is the best kind of philosopher -- one who refuses to cop to being a deep thinker even as he's kicking in the doors of perception (and sometimes spraining his ankle in the process).
In "I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined)," his first collection of original essays since 2010's "Eating the Dinosaur," Klosterman asks what it means to be a villain and how to differentiate true villains from those who are simply morally confused.
Early in the book he settles on a pithy definition that works as well as any proffered by any religion in the last 10,000 years: "The villain is the person who knows the most, but cares the least."
With the aplomb of a modern Machiavelli surveying our ever-shifting moral landscape for examples that prove his point, Klosterman takes the reader on a grand tour of villainy's outposts in popular culture, sports, politics and American history.
He makes a case for why universally acknowledged villains (New York subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz, comedian Andrew Dice Clay, treasonous BFF Linda Tripp, occultist Aleister Crowley and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange) earned their places in the pantheon of unambiguous villainy.
He also makes a case for unacknowledged but operational villains as disparate as Muhammad Ali, Bill Clinton and hijacker D.B. Cooper that adds a layer of contrarian nuance to his definition.
Some people and institutions self-consciously embrace the dark side because it is an inextricable part of who they are. Klosterman counts gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A and the Oakland Raiders among this cohort of cheesy, self-mythologizing villains.
In what is destined to be one of the book's most quoted chapters, Klosterman explains why as a former rock critic and lifelong music fan, he was once "contractually obligated" to hate Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, Dire Straits, R.E.M., Pink Floyd, Phish, U2, Coldplay and Blur.
On a sober note, a good chunk of the first chapter deals with the quandary presented by Joe Paterno, the late Penn State football coach whose reputation unraveled in his final months as Jerry Sandusky, his former defensive coordinator, stood accused of multiple counts of child abuse.
Keeping in mind Klosterman's definition of a villain as "someone who knows the most but cares the least," the author asks why Penn State's iconic football coach failed to care enough to use his institutional clout and moral authority to stop Sandusky when he knew enough early on to suspect the worst.
''The drug lords on 'The Wire' were criminals, but they had a stricter ethical code than the corrupt police trying to stop them," Klosterman wrote in his analysis of the HBO show and its complex characters.
''The most admirable adult in the series was Omar Little, a hyperviolent stickup artist who lived by a street code so austere he wouldn't even cuss (in 2012, Barack Obama cited Omar as his favorite 'Wire' character, thus making Obama the first sitting president to express admiration for a fictional homosexual who killed dozens of people with a shotgun)."
''I Wear the Black Hat" is an erudite, provocative and playful survey of the ever-shifting face of villainy in the American experience. To think of villainy as just Hitler is to miss its multifaceted reality.
-- Tony Norman, Scripps Howard News Service