Chuck Klosterman’s debut novel, Downtown Owl, starts off with a newspaper clipping about a sudden blizzard on Feb. 4, 1983. On that date, 11 people were found dead and dozens were still missing as a result of the storm.
Rewind back to Aug. 15, 1983.
Each chapter is told in chronological order leading up to the blizzard, cycling through three main characters that all live in the small farming town of Owl, N.D.
Mitch Hrlicka is a 16-year-old, third-string quarterback who openly admits that his 11-year-old sister is a better football player. He routinely has sinister, often murderous fantasies about John Laidlaw, who doubles as Mitch’s football coach and English teacher. In Mitch’s eyes, when Laidlaw isn’t impregnating teenage girls, he’s mocking Mitch.
The only other thing that seems to occupy Mitch’s mind is what it would be like to see the high school sports superstar, Chris “Grendel” Sellers, fight the high school psychopathic outcast, Cubby Candy. He and his friends spend a good portion of the book trying to figure out the outcome and how to coerce the two boys to fight each other.
Julia is a 23-year-old urbanite fresh out of college who comes to Owl to teach history. She couldn’t care less about teaching, dragging herself through the motions until she can go to the bar at night. She becomes the most desired woman in Owl and a borderline alcoholic. Stereotypically, she only likes the man who is both famous and aloof.
Horace Jones is a 73-year-old man who has lived in Owl his entire life. Sometimes he thinks about his dead wife, Alma. Other times he has coffee with the other geezers while they gossip about the town.
Each chapter reads like an essay told in third person by an omniscient narrator. The narrator’s voice sometimes becomes as irksome as talking to an insufferable know-it-all. There were several unnecessary uses of parentheses that added to this degrading tone, the most sever being when Klosterman adds “(of course)” into the middle of a sentence.
Some sections are written in the form of outlines or catalogues. Although the intent is to be innovative and the catalogues often point at the irony, this style of writing still seems lazy.
Downtown Owl is definitely a character-driven literary attempt rather than a plot-driven novel. Klosterman peppers his prose with social commentary and arouses questions for the reader to ponder. Portions of the novel make you feel like you’re sitting in English class analyzing George Orwells’ 1984.
How much right does the government have versus the rights of the individual citizen? Should the FBI really be allowed to engage in a shootout over one man’s tax evasion?
There are other questions raised by Downtown Owl. Why is it that Americans so easily confuse notoriety with talent? Why are we drawn towards famous people?
Two different characters mention within the novel that, “We’re all going to die,” adding another large and omnipresent theme to the work. The narrator mentions that in death, our true personalities shine through the artificial persona we adopt during life.
Even though this book takes place in the ’80s, the concepts are still applicable for 2008. When the novel ends, the reader still wants the story to continue.
Grab a copy of Downtown Owl as your passport to the small town North Dakota of decades past. Just make sure you’re prepared for a blizzard.
Downtown OwlChuck Klosterman273 pages***1/2$24