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Book review: <i>Downtown Owl</i> by Chuck Klosterman

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the cover of the book

If this was a bar, it would be one you stopped in out of desperation in a town you've never been to and to which you'll never return, that just happens to have the best fucking jukebox you've ever seen, frighteningly cheap drinks, and provides a blurry night you'll be retelling for years.


Now this is good. It's a landscape photo down Main Street, Smalltown, USA, turned ninety degrees, with two round holes cut mask-style into the centre. The awesomeness is that they have resisted the temptation to put anything behind the holes, and also that the cover could not, in fact, work as a mask as the holes are too close together. I don't know exactly why this is so awesome but it JUST IS so DEAL WITH IT. Text is simple white sans serif. Much like Johnny Depp, it's a sweet package that gives little away.


Owl is a tiny town in North Dakota, population three figures. The story's POV shifts loosely around three main-ish characters. There's a teenage boy from the local high school, who seems to want little more than to be left alone, particularly by his gym teacher, a man with an eye for the female student body. There's a senior farmer, recently widowed, who joins his buddies to drink coffee every weekday morning at a diner in downtown Owl. Lastly, there's a rudderless young schoolteacher, fresh to town, who seems slightly mystified as to why she's there. A year passes.

The good

This is one of those confounding books to review, in that the appeal, I suspect, will not simply be a matter of personal taste, but that question of taste itself will relate to aspects of the book which are very difficult to define. That said, I'll try and get the obvious bits out of the way first. OK, how about the fact that this is Chuck's first novel, after writing essays and criticism for about a decade. Now, popular wisdom suggests that, while there's no reason an artist can't write criticism, a critic is, by definition, someone incapable of creating the art which they pass judgement on, or else they would be doing that, instead of judging it. The odds are thus (theoretically) stacked against Chuck from word one, because in order for this to be good, he would have to belong to a pretty select group of writers who turned out criticism for years and years before revealing themselves capable of literary achievement. Judging primarily from a single short story included at the end of his last book, not anticipating great things. But I thoroughly enjoyed this. I was completely wrong. Part of the genius lies in Chuck's decision to take an autobiographical angle on the location, rather than (most of) the characters. This may not sound revolutionary, especially for a first novel, but you have to remember that Chuck makes his living dissecting pop culture, and is also, like a lot of writers, extremely selfish and self-involved. It would have been incredibly straightforward for Chuck to knock out two-fiddy words about a thirty-year-old movie reviewer, new to the big city, who can spend a solid hour mentally essaying the differences between Dr. Pepper and Mountain Dew, not as factors of the beverages' tastes, but in terms of their socio-cultural positioning via celebrity alliances. Or, to put it another way, the expanded version of his short story from Klosterman IV.

But he did not do that. He built a tiny, isolated American town, much like the one he grew up in, picked it relatively clean of pop-culture (the only teenager who even mentions pop music is the main character's friend, and the main character could care less about it,) and then he tried to get to the clockwork that makes small towns, and the people who elect to live in them, tick. The cleverest bit of the book is probably the way Owl is thus both an utterly typical Small American Town, but at the same time very odd indeed. You could easily expand the definition of Owl as a hard-headedly mundane place full of simple folk who are all, in their own way, mad, to describe the entire country. If that sounds a bit Lynchian, I'll concede the point (and the title doesn't help me), but Owl has an atmosphere which is 100% Klosterman, and, shorn of the interwoven fleece of cultural/sporting/topical/self references, there's revealed writing of unique voice and real talent.

The prose is always engaging, has a pleasingly contemporary feel, and could care less what you think about it - there's a swagger to the prose which has everything to do with Klosterman's experience, both at writing and living his subject. Chuck knows he can write, and he knows the inhabitants of Owl; the farmers, teachers and teenagers - especially the teenagers. He knows the bars and the schools, the little huddle of Owl's buildings which constitute, at once, a pitiful outpost against the elements, and a self-contained world for the inhabitants. Chuck excels at anecdotes, and much of the character motivation and action of the story take place in the past, through the thrice-told tales of teenage lore, lounge-bar legends, and the received wisdom of agricultural communities. Alongside anecdotes we have other small-town storytelling staples such as gossip, slander, rumour, and scuttlebutt. In addition to stimulating our juicy-gossip taste-buds, these ingredients also serve well to flavour peripheral characters, just as they would were you knew to town ands being shown around by a local.

It's also really funny. I laughed out loud on more than one occasion, which means that if you gave it to the average professional book reviewer his brain would come out his tear ducts. There's a character (whose POV we never see) called 'the Dog Lover' by the old men of Owl, on account of his sacrilegious treatment of his dog, e.g. letting it sleep inside the house, ride in the passenger seat, etc. The Dog Lover is a hilariously, pointlessly antagonistic bar manager, exactly the kind of small-town loser who's completely lost his grip on his own life and decides to externalise this in the form of the most nihilistic, self-destructive, sociopathic behaviour possible that still allows him to earn enough money for booze. When we're told that the Dog Lover once described Edgar's friend's wife's voice as 'A cuntier version of Joan Rivers'' I nearly weed my pants. It's certainly the first literary usage of the term I've ever seen. But is that really worthy of applause, let alone mention? Yes. Yes it is. Funny is funny, and most books aren't.

The bad

Klosterman tries to avoid sounding like a professional reviewer with some success, as I said above, largely by avoiding the easy material of his career so far, and through immersive characterisation which is obviously based on memory and observation, vital characteristics for any kind of writer. There's a reason he became a critic in the first place, though, being that his natural inclination toward drawing parallels, comparisons, and generalising effectively. He'd be silly to throw all that away in the name of a break to fiction, and indeed he doesn't. When these elements of Chuck's style blend with characterisation and sense of place, they work extremely well, e.g. during Edgar's internal revisiting of an episode where he was ripped off by a travelling con-man, an experience he secretly puts down to his own fundamental dishonesty - you can't fool an honest man, and all that - or when the gormless ex-football jock and the new-to-Owl schoolteacher half-heartedly try and communicate through a fog of two lifetimes' flashback, failure and lumpen flirting. (In that instance, Chuck switches us directly back and forth between the minds of the characters. There are a few tricks like this in the book - they follow naturally from Klosterman's review style, and he doesn't overdo them, so all in all they help give the prose its spiky immediacy, which contrasts quite well with the wintry provincial setting.)

What was I saying? Oh yeah, the generalisations can be insightful, painfully so, often, such as when Klosterman says that, while the reading at our funeral will judge us by the total of our accomplishments, inside our heads, we define ourselves by our failures. I would love to paint that as one of those things which are too pat to be true, but merely happened on the keyboard and struck the author as the touch of muse. Unfortunately in my case it's completely accurate, no matter how many times I turned it over looking for holes, so congratulations Chuck, you fucking, FUCKING bastard. This brings me (took a while, didn't it) to my two negative things.

Firstly, generalising human nature effectively takes confidence. The better at it you are, the more often you'll be proven correct, and the more confident you'll become. However, this often conversely means that, although you'll miss the mark more and more rarely, you'll also find it harder and harder to recognise to your mistakes. In short, Chuck's good characters are so strong, so familiar, that the occasional misstep really sticks out - a good example is the high-school football coach who occasionally gets his students pregnant. He has great potential in the life of both the teenage main character's life, and the life of the Owl itself, but this potential is never quite realised, and one gets the impression that this is down to Klosterman's inability to fully grasp the character's personality, perhaps because it's simply one step too far from the author's - a forgivable debut-novel problem, but disappointing here, as I said, by contrast with the strength of the other characters, plenty of whom are, at least superficially, quite different to the author. In essence, Klosterman tries to explain why the coach cheats on his wife with a series of teenage girls, gets away with it, and doesn't feel guilty at all, despite pretty much the entire town being aware of his crimes in every detail except in the most litigious. Klosterman seems to be aiming for a sort of ennui manifesting as a dichotomy between practical intelligence and a complete disinterest in consequences, but it never quite comes off, which is a shame. Doubly so, in fact, because it brings me to my other problem with the book:

In a few of Klosterman's columns, there's a sense that he's willing to manufacture subtext, or at least ambiguity, around a topic which proves just too superficial and cheesy even for a pop-culture professional. Not uncommon - Tarantino and Hornby made careers out of it - but it manifests itself in Downtown Owl in a new form. Klosterman seems to think that a sort of nihilistic understatement equates to profundity. It's that slightly adolescent belief that nobody will respect you if you fully explain yourself, and will find you enigmatic and intelligent thoughtful if you let the reader draw their own conclusions, combined with the equally adolescent (to my mind) belief that the grim and the bleak convey reality in a way that the happy and light can never achieve. On the latter charge, Chuck exonerates himself, for me, by including plenty of frivolity and silliness, showing quite accurately that life really has more to do with who you are and who you consort with than where your house happens to be. On the former charge, I'm sorry but there are a few too many chapters which end with an affected (if not necessarily ineffective) ambiguity, leading the reader to wonder, frankly, if the author just wasn't sure how to wrap it up. Returning to David Lynch again, despite the considerable differences between the artists' work, there's a touch of Twin Peaks syndrome here - is it a drama, a comedy, a romance, a philosophical meditation, or a piss-take of the whole lot? At their best, Owl and Peaks are all five simultaneously. At their worst, they're more like a soap opera that takes itself far too seriously.

But, in the case of Downtown Owl, the worst is far outshined by the best. The ending left me slightly cold, but there's quite enough gold here to earn my recommendation, not to mention Klosterman's surprisingly effective rebirth as a fiction writer. If his next novel's as good as this one, he could soon have a whole new audience.

What I learnt

That bison, though an environmentally sound and quite tasty foodstuff, are frigging crazy. A bison will, apparently, fuck you up for staring at it. They'll ram an empty parked car.

In short

Title: Downtown Owl
Author: Chuck Klosterman
Publisher: Scribner
ISBN: 978-1416544197
Year published: 2009
Pages: 275
Genre(s): Contemporary literature, Fiction
Review Type: