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BOOK REVIEW: Downtown Owl

Mid-West Dystopia: Debut novel depicts Chuck Klosterman’s former small town life

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Downtown Owl [Buy Now]
By Chuck Klosterman
Scribner, 273 pages, $24

Chuck Klosterman is GenY’s journalistic messiah.

No joke.

Sit in on any college journalism class and there’s bound to be at least one kid who will bring him up as an example. They probably even have a picture of Klosterman glued to their notebook, if not a full-out shrine in their dorm room.

OK. That’s a bit melodramatic. But Chuck’s intelligent pop-culture essays, featured in magazines like Spin and Esquire and in published collections like Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, are perfect for people weaned on VH-1.

Even The OC’s Seth Cohen loves him. If that matters anymore.

Downtown Owl is Klosterman’s first novel. Though he manages to name-drop ZZ Top, the Rolling Stones, and The Price is Right, he mostly offers a fictional supplement to his debut book, Fargo Rock City: Owl is a small North Dakota town of 800 in the early 1980s, devoid of pop culture.

The movie theater is closing, but the bowling alley is thriving. Rent is $55 a month. Nearly everyone has a nickname. And everyone knows everyone and everything about them, even if they don’t.

The central figures of the novel are Mitch Hrlicka, Julia Rabia, and Horace Jones. Mitch is 16 and he plays football, even though he’s not sure why. Julia, a 20-something teacher, just moved to town and has discovered that new, single women are a commodity hotter than corn; she and her friends never pay for drinks. Horace is a 73-year-old widower, spending his afternoons repeating conversations in the local coffee shop.

Between Mitch’s social awkwardness, Julia’s romantic insecurity, and Horace’s shame, the three are incredibly relatable. And like any town of 800, they’re connected, even if only on the most casual terms.

After all, everyone knows everyone and everything about them.

Even if they don’t.

Downtown Owl is an easy, quick read, with each character taking turns, getting a short chapter devoted to their perspective on a different day (and sometimes minor characters get an opportunity as well). Klosterman creates a population that’s quirky despite its dullness, each person uniquely memorable and most, even semi-villians, are sympathetic.

His style is peppered with experimentations, like a passage formatted to one of Mitch’s test, or another translating the dialogue between Julia and the man she’s infatuated with. It’s like a literary version of Annie Hall.

Klosterman uses Orwell’s 1984, assigned by Mitch’s statutory rapist English teacher and football coach on the cusp of that year, as an analogy to Owl’s small-town mentality. People live in a dystopia. No one is happy or unhappy. They live in a disillusioned world created for them.

And everyone knows everyone and everything about them.

They usually don’t.

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