Literature Review: Downtown Owl
Chuck Klosterman is one of the more polarizing literary figures in recent memory. He certainly has a legion of royal supporters who practically worship the ground he walks upon. At the same time, there are a huge number of Klosterman haters. Check out this scathing piece by some guy named Mark Ames, in which he claims that CK is not only the single greatest indicator of the downfall of modern civilization, but that he also looks like a human ass. Which he kind of does, but still.
Downtown Owl is Klosterman’s first novel, though he did include an interesting short story in his collection “Chuck Klosterman IV.” This book follows 3 tangentially related central characters from the titular (and fictional) town of Owl, North Dakota during the mid 1980’s. Owl is the type of small town where everyone knows pretty much everything about each other and where old men gather in coffee shops on a daily basis to discuss the trials and tribulations of the high school football team.
Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the three main characters, who (surprise!) talk and think exactly like Klosterman. Mitch is a depressed high school student who likes sleeping and hates music. Horace is an old man filled with regret. Julia is a perpetually drunk new social studies teacher in town.
I did enjoy this book, but from a literary perspective, there are a number of problems. The biggest is simply that Klosterman cannot seem to get out of the way of his characters. People are not nearly as self-aware as Klosterman makes them out to be. For example, here’s Vance Druid, at one point says something to the effect of “The place doesn’t matter, you just live.” That’s a nice thought, but it just feels strange coming out of the mouth of a depressed, alcoholic college drop.
Klosterman also does a lot of rambling. Most of the chapters, in fact, are just the character who’s narrating the story rambling on about other residents of the town. These ramblings are interesting, and often funny as hell, but they really do not advance the story in any way. And as George Costanza said, if you don’t have a story, it’s just masturbation.
Despite all this, I enjoyed the hell out of the book. I’m a big fan of Klosterman, and this book was well-written, funny, and filled with a lot of interesting characters. It’s sort of like a combination of Friday Night Lights and Twin Peaks (though there’s no crazy evil spirits involved). Klosterman is from rural North Dakota, and he sets up a world that is interesting despite it’s seeming blandness.
If you’re a Klosterman fan, you should read this. If not, you’ll probably be annoyed.