Book review: ‘Downtown Owl’
Vail CO, Colorado
There’s always worry when one of your favorites decides to shake things up and try something new, think along the lines of Michael Jordan playing baseball, David Bowie acting, or Carl Lewis singing.
The results are often sad, even tragic. So imagine my fears when I saw that one of my favorite writers, essayist and pop culture savant Chuck Klosterman, was taking the plunge into fiction. I crossed my fingers, and hoped for the best.
And I got it.
Klosterman seamlessly bridges the gap from keen observer to character developer in “Downtown Owl,” his glimpse at small-town life as told through the omniscient lens of three protagonists.
Welcome to Owl, a one traffic-light town in the nether regions of North Dakota, miles from anything, including ordinary. It is the early 1980s, and kids and adults alike have little to do. Farming is big. So is high school football. The Gordon Kahl (you’ll want to read for this plot anecdote alone) incident has everyone talking.
In this outpost, likely based on Klosterman’s hometown of Windmere, N.D., there are three drastically different people salvaging life in this seemingly nondescript town.
There’s Mitch Hrlicka, a cynical high schooler who can’t comprehend rock music, the appeal of his football coach, or anything else that seems to be popular.
There’s Julia Rabia, a transplant from Madison, Wisc., freshly graduated, who finds herself seduced by libations and a local buffalo farmer.
Then there’s Horace Jenkins, an old timer who’s decent (at best) at cards and can’t quite keep up with the coffee shop gossip.
It’s with Horace that Klosterman hits a home run. Delicately written and portrayed, Horace isn’t the sympathetic character you would expect from a writer whose previous works included comparing various girlfriends to KISS members, sailing the seas with Journey, dissecting the poetry of Val Kilmer, and a reference to Marilyn Manson as “consciously outrageous.”
Horace, for a lack of a better cliche, tugs at your heartstrings. He has hopelessly watched his wife slip into dementia, eventually dying in his arms. He feels destiny passed him by when he was too young to serve in World War I, and then too old to serve in ensuing campaigns. He was hustled by a smooth-talking sympathizer at his wife’s wake. He has little to add to his daily roundtable talks with his cronies.
Gosh darn it, if Klosterman doesn’t make you a little misty while narrating the travails of Horace, who feels as though he could be your kindly, lonely old neighbor on the porch rocker, or even grandpa.
Old man empathy aside, Klosterman manages to weave an entertaining story loaded with familiar topics (the rise of 1980s heavy metal, people who love their dogs too much) and literary devices, including one delicious translation between what Julia and her buffalo wrangler are discussing, and what they’re actually meaning.
There’s an event that links all three characters, and further certifies that Klosterman is not some ranter-and-raver with a gift for words. There’s emotion and suspense as “Downtown Owl” builds to its stormy conclusion.
Like his nonfiction work, the writing is nothing short of genius: Sharp, snappy, succinct and a pace all its own. The dialogue is authentic. There’s plenty of banter to get lost in that will appeal to anyone who remembers high school, grew up in a small town, or both.
“Downtown Owl” may be a bit outside the comfort zone of some readers, but the rewards are well worth it. It is not a conventional novel. It’s a story that’s likely relatable to a lot of people in a lot of ways, and deserves a chance on the nightstand.
As one of his adoring essay acolytes, I had legitimate concerns over his legacy when the review copy of the book emerged. Now I’m just proud to say I knew him way back when.
Stephen Bedford works at The Bookworm.
Support Local Journalism
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User