I expected to enjoy Chuck Klosterman’s Downtown Owl. I’ve enjoyed his skewed view of pop culture in his non-fiction essays, such as the collection Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. However, I wasn’t prepared for his first novel, Downtown Owl, to be flat out amazing.
The novel takes place in the town of Owl, North Dakota, population – about 700. It’s the kind of place that gets flown over and derided by city people on the coasts. It’s the kind of place where we assume that nothing ever happens and boredom reigns. To an extent that’s true, but to a larger extent, it’s not true at all.
The story is told (mostly) from the perspective of three Owl residents. Mitch Hrlicka is the third-string quarterback for the Owl High Screaming Lobos (formerly the Screaming Satans). Horace Jones is an old-timer whose days revolve around an afternoon coffee ritual that has been ongoing for decades. Julia Rabia is a new teacher from Madison, Wisconsin who immediately questions her decision to teach at a rural school when the principal gives her a sales pitch that begins with this:
…it’s not like this is some kind of wonderland. This isn’t anyone’s destination city. It’s not Las Vegas. It’s not Monaco. It’s not like you’ll be phoning your gal pals every night and saying, ‘I’m living in Owl, North Dakota, and it’s a dream come true.’ But you will like it here…
Most o fthe action takes palce at Owl High School or the town’s few bars. The novel takes place in 1983-84, and the Owl High students have been assigned the George Orwell classic. Unfortunatley, their ssuper creepy English teacher (and football coach) provides thoughtful insights like these to his students:
…you’re supposed to be 106 pages into this story. I’m sure many of you feel like nothing is happening. Do not be alarmed. All great books are like this. All great books seem boring until you’re finished reading them.
…There is, however, an extremely long book called Atlas Shrugged that’s about what would happen if all of the most brilliant individuals in the world separated themselves from the flotsam and jetsam of society and built a utopia. Rebecca, you should read this book, You’d probably relate to it, especially if you’re interested in trains. But here is my larger point…
For the most part, this a novel about ordinary people living their lives. There are plenty of colorful characters that breathe life into the small town. Owl is the kind of place where grown men have inscrutable nicknames like Little Johnny Horse-n-Phone and Ass Jam (and his little brother, Baby Ass Jam). The trick that Klosterman pulls off rather well is pulling us into this familiar but infinitely strange world and making us care about what happens to these people. And then he places them, all of them, in a precarious situation where the outcome is never certain. I couldn’t put it down.
Chuck Klosterman is from North Dakota, and this novel seems determined to undermine what we think we know about small town life in the frozen north. The book is dedicated to North Dakota. As much as this is a love-letter to his home state, Klosterman also includes a note below the dedication that reads, “This story is a non-autobiographical work of fiction” - in case you were wondering.
Also: if you’ve read the book and enjoyed it as much as I did, you may want to check out these Klosterman-approved Owl High t-shirts available in both Screaming Lobos/Screaming Satans varieties. Proceeds benefit a children’s charity.