This may be Chuck Klosterman’s first novel, but Downtown Owl is hardly a venture into the unknown. It revisits the essayist’s two chief obsessions: the sleepiness of small-town America and the unexamined profundities of pop culture, both of which he has already explored, to great success, in three intelligent and very funny works of nonfiction.
So it’s not surprising that his novel is ripe with punchy anecdotes, or that it conjures up the fictional town of Owl, North Dakota (population: “twelve hundred during the height of the 1970s, but now it’s more like eight hundred. Maybe 850. I don’t know where all the people went”), with an unerring specificity. We already knew he could do both of those things.
Instead, the real intrigue comes from watching a writer who has built his entire career on personal musings and first-person journalism attempt to camouflage himself in the world of fiction. As a Serious Literary Novel, then, Downtown Owl is something of a failure; there’s very little in the way of substantial plot, and every character talks and thinks the same way (which is to say, like Chuck Klosterman). Yet, despite these sizable shortcomings, it remains every bit as weirdly endearing and compulsively readable as Klosterman’s nonfiction.
What story there is revolves around the loosely intertwined lives of three Owl residents: Mitch, a third-string football player; Julia, a high-school history teacher; and Horace, an elderly man who drinks a lot of coffee. A reprinted news story on the first page sets up the impending disaster—a freak (real-life) blizzard that killed over 20 North Dakotans in 1984—and the rest of the book tries to get us wholly entangled in the lives of various local characters before the storm rips the town apart in the final pages.
Sometimes this strategy works, but the anecdotes often prove more memorable than the static characters that tell them. This can be irritating, but it isn’t entirely unrewarding. After all, Klosterman has made his reputation by relentlessly needling the minutiae of pop culture; did anyone really expect him to write a book that didn’t have a long story about an obscure Rolling Stones album?
Scribner, 288 pp, $28, hardcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, October 30, 2008)