Downtown Owl, the debut novel by undisputed junk culture champion Chuck Klosterman, begins and ends with the same thing: a newspaper clipping. The first one (dated 5 February 1984) describes a killer blizzard that has swept through the Red River Valley, killing 11 people and leaving dozens more missing. The second one is published a few days later, a Bismarck Tribune feature on how the town of Owl lost a beloved high school football player in the storm, a young man described as a true leader and an exceptional athlete, making his departure all the more tragic.
As the book starts on 15 August of the year prior, we discover that, in fact, there were already tragedies in motion well before the freak storm hit Owl, and the only thing that was more tragic than the random deaths of select citizens was how some of the deceased were in the midst of unremarkable lives that showed no immediate potential, lives that proved to be unworthy of write-ups in the Bismarck Tribune — and these are the characters that we learn to love the most.
Chuck Klosterman has always been the unofficial voice of the slacker generation; after all, the man could always pull meaning out of meaningless subjects, be it breakfast cereal mascots, The Real World, or even hair-metal. With 2006’s Chuck Klosterman IV, a dizzying retrospective of previously-published articles and features, Klosterman decided to conclude said book with a work of fiction, which, really, was nothing more than a fictionalized extension of Klosterman’s own personality.
As charismatic as Klosterman’s text is, the notion of him filling a whole novel with his personality seemed daunting to some: after all, his essay-oriented style was the perfect fit for a generation of ADD-addled teenagers — there was no reason to change the formula. Perhaps this is why, then, that Downtown Owl is such an unusual departure for Klosterman. The first character we’re introduced to is Mitch Hrlickla, a relatively downtrodden high school junior who plays on Owl’s football team as a reserve and hates rock music. Mitch is so far removed from Klosterman’s own personality, it almost feels like he’s the very antithesis of what Klosterman stands for.
In the small town of Owl, he does little aside from hang out with friends and, oddly, serve as the expert on what would happen in a theoretical fight between fellow Owl teammate Grendel (nicknamed for his massive stature) and Cubby Candy (a mentally disturbed but perpetually misunderstood student who has a knack for winning fist fights).
For some reason, this is just a field that Mitch excels in, and it’s his only real notable social quality in his peer group: he often will tell you who would win this much-discussed fight depending almost entirely on Cubby’s access to rats (for throwing).
The second character we meet is Julia Rabia, a mid-20s teacher who is just starting her first year at Owl. Julia initially feels worried that there is nothing to do in town, but, upon meeting a fellow teacher with a passion for drinking, Julia finds her own niche in Owl: being the “new girl” in town and one helluva flirt — even though she never once would go as far as to take a man home with her.
Soon, her love of teaching is transformed into a love of drinking, and it’s not long before she fixates on the one man in this town who appears “different”: Vance Druid, a remarkably plain man who was once an Owl High football star and who just so happened to do only one great play in his entire life, finally living up to the potential of his two extraordinary football-star brothers before him. He’s intentionally distant even while everyone wants to be his friend, and perhaps this is why Julia is attracted to him in the first place: because he isn’t rushing out to grab her attention like everyone else.
Rounding out our central trio is Horace, an elderly man who simply exists day to day in the absence of his wife, a woman who died of a rare insomniatic disorder that prevented her from sleeping, eventually forcing her into a tragic sort of coma. Horace passes the time reflecting on local history and arguing with fellow seniors about things like what constitutes a traitor or whether Gordon Kahl (a local legend who shot a federal marshal who demanded he pay his taxes) was truly justified in committing the crimes he did (the big argument in his favor is that said marshal did murder his dog).
The most notable event that happened to him since his wife’s passing occurred when he met a man at her funeral, someone he never met before, who turned out to be either a man who experienced some bad luck on a return journey to Owl months later, or — as Horace suspects — proved to be the single greatest con-man he had ever met. It is for this reason that Horace despises the phrase “you can never con an honest man.”
Yet, what do these three unrelated characters have to do with each other? Absolutely nothing. The only time their lives intersect is when Julia says hello to Mitch between classes one day, but it would prove to be the only time that any of Downtown Owl‘s lead trio interacts. Horace never meets either of them, and Mitch certainly would forget about Julia the second that he walked past her.
These three people’s lives never connect in any meaningful way, and that is exactly the point. Downtown Owl is a portrait of small-town life, a place where ambitions go no farther than the city limit and dreams dissolve as daily routine sets in. This is not an easy thing to capture in a book, but Klosterman captures that sense of desolation very well.
Almost too well, in fact. Downtown Owl is a book that certainly has a bit of a learning curve, as it takes awhile to get used to the fact that there is no actual plot: our central characters’ lives pass by one day at a time, sometimes with excitement and sometimes just because they’re going through the motions.
On one chapter dedicated to Mitch (Klosterman switches between the characters each chapter, round-robin style), the young lad spends a good portion of it fantasizing about how he could get away with mutilating/killing John Laidlaw, his coach and English teacher. Laidlaw always calls Mitch “Vanna” due to the lack of vowels in his last name, and this, of course, irritates Mitch to no end.
Does any progress get made in the chapter of which he thinks of bashing Laidlaw’s skull in? No, but, in retrospect, how many adolescent boys in the world have spent entire afternoons fantasizing about the same thing?
Of course, for those who have followed Klosterman all the way from Fargo Rock City won’t be thrown for too much of a loop: there are still the usual Klosterman similes (using “paws” for “hands”, for one), the chapters made up almost entirely of lists (as in what every bar patron’s nickname is and how they got it), and, of course, Klosterman’s joyously bizarre tangents (including how the Owl football mascot was once the Owl, making their official team name “the Owl Owl’s” and causing much controversy in the community).
Yes, there is much fun to be had still, but there is also much more gravitas than the usual Klosterman piece. It’s just unfortunate, then, that the lack of forward momentum prevents the book from truly reaching its climax at a respectable point, the book instead feeling about 50 pages overstuffed.
At least one of our central protagonists dies in that 1984 blizzard, and — just like life — there is no fate or special factors in play that determine who lives and who dies. Some people just have bad luck, some people are just stupid, and some people’s stupidity is the very thing that may wind up saving them. Life is never filled with easy answers, and neither is Downtown Owl.
It’s an evocative portrait of lives going nowhere, and that turns out to be both Owl‘s greatest flaw and its greatest strength. It may not be perfect, but, ultimately, Klosterman’s debut novel is a celebration of lives that normally go uncelebrated, the litmus test being whether we ourselves identify with these people who destinies are stuck in idle and have no hope of changing anytime soon.