Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman
Chuck Klosterman is one of the funniest writers alive – if you have no idea who he is, you are a loser*. His typical gig is writing sharp, witty essays and observation pieces as a culture critic for Esquire, sometimes for the New York Times Magazine, Spin, The Believer, and the like. His story “The Amazing McNugget Diet” (available in the collection Chuck Klosterman IV) – a chronicle of his attempt to eat nothing but McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets for a full week – very nearly made me soil myself. From laughter. Downtown Owl is his first foray into fiction – and a highly successful one at that.
Owl, North Dakota circa 1983 is a place where no one to really wants to live, but a place where no one can seem to think of a good enough reason to leave. Mitch is a high school kid who wants his football coach to die a horrible death. He hates rock music – or what passes for rock music in 1983, like ZZ Top – and fully admits that the Georgetown Hoyas basketball team are the only black people that he “knows”. Julia is the newest resident of Owl – fresh from college, she moved there to take a teaching position at Owl High School. She’s not really sure why she did that. She decides to spend her time hopping from bar to bar, getting trashed, and talking to Vance Druid – the mystery man of Owl. (Vance is a former high school football phenom who only listens to the Rolling Stones and reluctantly raises bison as a profession.) Horace has lived in Owl his entire life. In his later, widower years, he spends much of each day at the coffee shop listening to his circle of friends complain about the world at large. “The way young people talk these days, you’d think Christopher Columbus was the Caucasoid Pol Pot” – a response to which may be, “You know, they say Columbus was a rapist….I’d hate to think we didn’t get our mail this morning in tribute to an Italian rapist.”
What do these three people mean to you and me? They are the United States of Owl, North Dakota. Klosterman, using the perspectives of this amazing triple threat, gives us a story that is equal parts coming-of-age, quarterlife crisis, and one of coping with grief and the prospect growing older. Each is a wonderful human being who breathes and pulses within a different period of life, providing a darkly comedic, all encompasing view of white, middle American life in 1983. (You know you’ve been dying for a novel about white, middle Americans in 1983.) I was surprised by this book, actually – I wasn’t sure what to expect from it, being familiar with his non-fiction, but Klosterman has managed to maintain the wit and social awareness that he’s known for and have it translate into his novel. The result is a very compelling story about the lives of these three people – lives that never actually intersect, even in the ridiculously small town of Owl – who offer a complete view into this window of small town American life. A very, very funny and well-crafted book – and one that I hope will be the harbinger of good fiction from Chuck in years to come.
*Sorry, that was unprofessional and cruel. I have no idea if you are a loser, but your ignorance** of Chuck Klosterman should be no basis for loserdom.
**I mean “ignorance” in the nicest possible way, of course.