Road trip among the dead
Killing Yourself to Live: 85 per cent of a true story
Chuck Klosterman Faber & Faber, 245pp, £
In Book XI of The Odyssey, Odysseus meets the ghost of Achilles in the Underworld. "When you were on earth," Odysseus says, "we honoured you as though you were a god; and now, down here, you have great power among the dead." Achilles replies: "I would rather work the soil as a serf on hire to some landless impoverished peasant than be king of all these lifeless dead." But what Achilles himself wants is neither here nor there. He's the archetypal western hero: uber-talented, exceptionally good-looking, subject to violent mood swings and doomed to die young. Odysseus has just been told by the ghost of the blind transsexual prophet Tiresias that he will "die peacefully of old age". There's no doubt as to which of the two Homeric heroes is the more glamorous, and the glamour is inextricably bound up with his dying young.
Achilles's lineage can be traced through Alexander the Great, Jesus of Nazar- eth, Joan of Arc, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Chatterton, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Rupert Brooke, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. It is hard not to discern a falling-off in this list: Achilles's blood must have been very thin by the time it was mingling with the heroin in the veins of Nirvana's frontman, who blew his brains out with a shotgun in April 1994 at the age of 27. But the relationship between Cobain's suicide and his reputation as a rock musician - his death cemented the view that Nirvana's Nevermind was the pre-eminent album of the early 1990s, and one of the greatest albums of all time ("all time" meaning roughly the past 40 years) - is the same as that between Achilles's early demise and his reputation as a heroic warrior. One of the things that fans need rock stars for is to live hard and die young on their behalf. Shortly before not dying in a motorcycle accident, Bob Dylan recorded a song called "Temporary Like Achilles".
Chuck Klosterman writes for Spin magazine in New York. Killing Yourself to Live is an account of a road trip that he took across the US in the summer of 2003, from the Chelsea Hotel, where Sid Vicious (probably) murdered his girlfriend Nancy Spungen in 1978, to the bridge in Aberdeen, Washington that Kurt Cobain claimed to have slept under but in fact never did. He punctuates the journey with stop-offs at places such as the site of a fire at a gig in West Warwick, Rhode Island, in which almost 100 people died in February 2003; Graceland, where Elvis Presley died (not so young) on the toilet in 1977; the stretch of the Mississippi in which Jeff Buckley drowned in 1997; the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in the early 1930s; the field in Iowa where Buddy Holly died in a plane crash in 1959.
Along the way, Klosterman shares with the reader what seems like pretty much every thought and memory that pops into his head. Some of his thoughts have to do with music. Some of these are spot on: "With the possible exception of Jim Morrison, Eric Clapton is (arguably) the most overrated rock musician of all time; he's a talented, boring guitar player, and he's a workmanlike, boring vocalist. He also has an abhorrent (and, I suppose, boring) neck beard." I think Klosterman is right about Clapton. He's mostly right, too, about Rod Stewart, who "may be a blond clown with bad judgement", but also has "the single-greatest male singing voice of the rock era". I'd probably temper that with "one of", and wouldn't go so far as to agree that "everything he says is true", but one of Klosterman's strengths is his willingness to defend his unfashionable tastes. On the other hand, his airy dismissal of Robert Johnson just makes him sound like an idiot.
There are some good riffs on non- musical subjects, too. Going for a run one evening in rural North Carolina, he wonders what would happen if he dropped dead: how long it might be till he was found; then he'd have to be identified; who'd be the first of his friends and relations to be informed; how the news would spread through the network of his acquaintances. He tells a hilarious inconsequential anecdote about borrowing a cigarette lighter from a neighbour. He meets some interesting people, like Mary Beth, a waitress with intriguing thoughts about the influence of prose narrative on the passage of time in dreams.
But far too much of the book is taken up with self-indulgent musings on Klosterman's relationships. "Chuck, please don't write a book about women you used to be in love with," one of his friends tells him in the last chapter. "Because that's exploitative. And narcissistic. And a bit desperate." More to the point, it's boring, like most of his stories about getting drunk and taking drugs: entertaining to do; very hard to write about entertainingly. The root problem is that there's enough material here for a good magazine article, but it should never have been bulked out into a book.
One thing lacking from Killing Yourself to Live is any mention of the Breeders: if only Last Splash had been one of the 600 CDs that Klosterman took along with him. Then he could have listened to the song "I Just Wanna Get Along", which contains the brilliant and pertinent line "If you're so special why aren't you dead".
Thomas Jones is an editor of the London Review of Books