Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Chuck Klosterman -- Downtown Owl (2008)

Chuck Klosterman -- Downtown Owl (Scribner)

Because rock and roll weaves in and out of this book, I suppose Downtown Owl might be referred to as a rock and roll novel. Especially since the book is written by the renowned Spin Magazine writer who first gained attention with his thoughtful take on growing up a heavy metal fan in a small town in the ‘80s, Fargo Rock City. But, like a lot of Klosterman's writing, there's more to it than that.

Since his debut publication, Chuck Klosterman has revealed himself to be a witty and astute social commentator. As first established in Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs, Klosterman writes about pop culture like nobody else. Klosterman is fascinated by how the things we absorb from the media impact our behavior and what that says about us.

Klosterman has developed a very specific writing style, heavy on parentheticals. His prose is instantly identifiable. And, as other reviewers have noted, Klosterman hasn't figured out a way to craft dialogue that is different than his prose style. Many of the characters in the book speak just like Klosterman. This is only a minor problem, in the scheme of things.

This doesn't impact the book too negatively, because Klosterman succeeds in creating an interesting and real small town milieu. Of course, it would be a great failure if he couldn't replicate a town like the one he grew up in.

In Owl, some folks live a mile or two away from their nearest neighbor. Gossip gets around town almost instantaneously, without the aid of the Internet (the book is set in the early '80s, so word of mouth is still the prime form of communication). Pop culture reaches this tiny North Dakota town, but it doesn't saturate it. Since the Owl movie theater closed, the main action for anyone over the age of 18 is one of the few bars strewn around the town. If you're in high school, your best bet is getting in your car and driving around and around and around the main drag. This last part is so true -- I remember a couple of summers in Crossville, Tennessee where the Main Street circle was about all teens had to do.

Klosterman focuses on three characters -- Mitch, a thoughtful high school student and not so successful jock, Julia, a 23-year-old Milwaukeean whose first teaching job is at Owl High, and Horace, a retired long time widower whose life revolves around b.s. sessions at a downtown diner. Each chapter is devoted to one of the characters. To an extent, the novel is three concurrent character studies.

This method works well for Klosterman. The common thread in these three characters is that they are fairly smart but directionless. Mitch fits in well enough with his peers, yet there's a distance between Mitch and his classmates as he seems to be (internally) questioning why things are the way they are with a greater degree of rigor. Julia took the teaching job in Owl because there weren't many other opportunities coming her way. She become pals with a fellow teacher and they rotate between the town bars, while Julia gets special attention as THE single girl in town. And Horace has settled into a comfortable existence of little excitement but utter contentment, with one secret gnawing inside him.

By not having a traditional plot driven narrative, Klosterman can go wherever his inspiration takes him. So there are odd stories, thoughtful conversations and clever detours from literary technique. For example, in one chapter set in a classroom, Klosterman looks into what each student is thinking while a teacher natters on about George Orwell's 1984. In the single funniest chapter, Klosterman breaks down a three-minute conversation between Julia and her sort of love interest, the laconic Vance Druid. After each bit of dialogue, Klosterman follows with "What she meant," "What he meant," "What she hoped to imply," "What he believed," and so on. The chapter has great insight into how men and women think, and how we sabotage ourselves with the inability to be direct.

While there is no plot per se in this novel, there is one plot point, a massive blizzard that comes with no warning whatsoever. Klosterman has always been interested in why people make the choices they do, and here, confronted with a weather disaster, Mitch, Julia and Horace each have to make the right choice or suffer. Or make the right choice and suffer.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable novel, though Klosterman's inability to find a voice other than his own for his characters is a limitation that he needs to overcome to grow as a fiction writer. But check this sample out:

"I need to change my ways," said Julia. "I can't keep doing these things. I can't keep living like this." Like all self-destructive creatures, she completely meant these words, but only while she spoke them.

As long as Klosterman can keep coming up with observations like that (and there are plenty more where that came from), I'll keep coming back for more.

No comments: