Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman follows a few months in the lives of 17-year-old level-headed, slightly depressed, Mitch — a mediocre athlete who’s ideal bedroom would be as sterile as a hotel room. Julia, the 23-year-old recently-hired history teacher who’s resale value skyrockets because she’s new in town and she’s in a town of men who want to ply a woman with alcohol. And Horace, a widower who enjoys solitude, spy biographies and wars he did not fight in. The omniscient unnamed narrator is a smartass, 80s trivia guru, with a keen understanding of how a cold winter wind could feel like snorting Cocaine.
Owl, North Dakota, is any of the small towns in the country that Richard Russo, Jonathan Tropper or, heck, Lorna Landvik creates. Cafes, bars, a bowling alley and quirky characters with quirky nicknames making quirky gossip. It’s a story as old as Jon Hassler’s liver spots were, and it is incredibly hard to screw up. A novel about a small town is one of the easier ways to get a book branded as “charming.”
Downtown Owl is funny. It is set in 1983-84, and it is pleasant to read nostalgia fiction that includes people discussing Dallas plotlines and discovering Boy George.
* It starts with Julia, woman handled by another teacher who demands that they get drunk together on Friday night. Julia has just bellied up when she is approached by a local who asks her to go with him to the movie E.T., playing a few towns away.
Chuck Klosterman Reading
7:30 p.m., Thursday, October 2
Triple Rock Social Club
629 Cedar Avenue, Minneapolis, MN
Tickets $8 available at Magers & Quinn
“I just met you, like, eight seconds ago,” Julia said. “In fact, I didn’t even meet you. You didn’t even say your name. I just saw you eight seconds ago. Do you have any idea how crazy that seems?”
After he walks away, she is approached by his friend, who apologizes for Bull Calf’s actions … and asks Julia to go see E.T. with him, instead.
* Horace’s posse of old men argue variations of the same argument every day, and every day it ends with someone telling someone else they are a hippie who should just move to California with those other orange-juice drinkers.
* There is a character named Marvin Windows. This, for the non-Midwesties, is an inside joke of a name.
* The novel often goes off-roading with alternate-form story telling: A list of the nicknames of various Owlites, typically acquired in high school after an arcane incident; What the 22 students are thinking about in John Laidlaw’s English class, instead of his discussion; What Julia and the one-play football hero are saying versus what they mean during their first sober conversation. [Sometimes this technique works, sometimes it is a good idea that wasn’t stretched well enough.]
This book has flaws. None of the three main characters are written well enough that their voices are distinguishable. Mitch could be a high school version of Julia and both have the potential to become Horace. When Julia and a local are stoned and having a conversation, it is hard to follow who is saying what. Some great minor characters are introduced at the cost of going deeper with the big three, but a few of those minor characters start to get great.
If this was the world’s introduction to Chuck Klosterman, I’m not convinced it would do more than make a ripple and it certainly wouldn’t result in the O.C.’s Seth Cohen’s devotion or Klosterman earning a teaching position in Germany. As it is, this novel will probably just be a blip in his writing career. I believe his next novel will define if he can actually be trusted to write unique and tricky fiction.
Yes. Sometimes it seems like Chuck Klosterman bucked at the waist and vomits a chapters-worth of words onto a piece of paper that is immediately mass produced and stapled into a book before he can even wipe his mouth.
Ralph. “Blah blah ZZ Top.”
Ralph. “Blah Tommy Kramer blah blah blah.”
Ralph. “Cocaine. Blah.”
All while Klosterman’s editor stands behind him and says “Atta boy, Chas. Just get it all out. It will make you feel better. Now try to purge some thoughts on the Rolling Stones. You have anything you want to say about the Rolling Stones?”
And that is how what seems like a NaNoWriMo project became a novel. A novel I, unfortunately, don’t hate at all.