Book: Downtown Owl
Author: Chuck Klosterman
Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction
Why Did I Read This Book: I was mentally tired from reading so much bizarro for my other site and needed a break. I had purchased this book when I saw it in a Borders sale bin and grabbed it impulsively. It sat in a to-be-read stack and I read it only when the outrageousness of my odder books left me bleary, searching for something more prosaic.
Availability: Published by Scribner in 2008, you can get a copy here:
Comments: As I said above, I bought this book on impulse because it was on sale and read it because I was overwhelmed after reading a string of bizarro titles. There was no more thought in purchasing it and no more in reading it. Reading this book filled me with a sense of intense dread, a sad realization that I am doomed. Despite my self-admitted bibliophilic tendencies, despite my willingness to buy a book I know nothing about and read it, despite the fact that I am blessed with a relatively demand-free schedule and can read several hours a day, I will one day die without having discovered some amazing authors.
I haven’t recorded the final tally of what I have read for 2010 but it’s around 100 books. 100 books in a year. I admit I now read pretty slowly because of my review sites so maybe I can read more but let’s assume I can’t. Let’s assume two books a week is more or less my expected tally every year. I have maybe 30 years left if I am lucky. That’s 3,000 books before I die and that’s nothing. That’s not even the fiction section at my local Barnes & Noble. How many books like this one will I not read, books I may overlook or not buy on impulse? How can life be this cruel, this ridiculous, allowing so much talent and so little time to enjoy all of it?
Yes, this book was amazing, a revelation, a book so good it forced me to look at my own mortality and wonder if I can find a way to read more and absorb more because if I am only just now reading my first Chuck Klosterman book, what else awaits me? What other gems have I not discovered? What else will I miss before the end inevitably comes? Quite a bit, evidently.
This book is indeed a revelation because I can’t remember the last time I read a book and realized that the author not only got everything right, but also cooked up a novel so smoothly blended that at the end, it doesn’t really register that you have read a slice of small town Americana told with deft humor and clear love for the characters and town, a gentle character-driven yet plot heavy book and a modern naturalist novel with an environment cruelly and randomly shaping the lives of people whose wills should have been enough to sustain them in the end but cannot stand in the face of stronger, impersonal forces that act against them. Yes, I may be wrong as hell on this, but I really do see strong naturalist elements at work in a novel that is also steeped in sentimentality. And this is a very good reason to love this novel because to have pulled this off speaks of a talent that I could kick myself for almost missing.
Set in Owl, North Dakota in 1983-1984, this book discusses all the people in the little town by telling the stories of Julia, a recent college grad who teaches at Owl’s high school, Mitch, a high school football player who loathes pop music, and Horace, an elderly widower whose wife died from fatal familial insomnia and whose life revolves around getting coffee with his friends. While this novel shows Klosterman has a clear affection for Owl and the sorts of people who live there, he doesn’t slip into the role of a fawning admirer of bucolic small towns and the “quirky” people who live there. The pedophilic coach and literature teacher. The anti-government weirdo who lost his mind when his dog got shot. The bartender everyone thinks is too fond of his dog. Cubby Candy and Grendel, two outsiders whom all the teen boys want to fight each other and speculate endlessly about which loser would win in the brawl. The drunks, the cheaters, sadnesses, secrets. We all know everyone in small towns knows everyone else’s business but Klosterman shows the reader the collective mind of Owl.
The notion that there is far more to small towns than meets the eye is nothing new. That they are filled with quirky people, hard-working people, slackers, racists, drunks and high school football stars still basking in their glory days is also nothing new. But Klosterman’s synthesis of all that is obvious about small towns, combined with his gifts for characterization, his finely turned phrases, his insight and ability to capture so accurately a period in time, make the obvious seem utterly worth reading and the mundane new via his clever, precise presentation.
Because this novel is really the look at an entire town mainly via the stories of Julia, Horace and Mitch, it is almost impossible to discuss the plot because all those tiny plot lines and stories culminate in one horrific blizzard, a meteorological anomaly that hits the town and changes everything forever in the last ten pages of the book. It’s almost a punch in the gut, how quietly and determinedly without sentiment this novel ends, how neatly this novel refuses to let the reader believe in a world where death is just or even makes sense. This is when I realized that I had read a book that hinted at a naturalist philosophy. All these characters were shaped by their environment, that is almost too obvious to state, but there is no way that this book could have ended as it did unless Klosterman was detached from the story, letting events happen as they would and crushing the idea that free will plays much into how the lives of people end. The individual in this novel is presented as important and the book revolves around the various interesting natures of the people in Owl, but at the same time, the individual is powerless in the face of certain forces. The will to survive, personal strength or even intelligence means little at the end of it all. This is a book that despite the fun, the wonderful prose, the richness of characters, ultimately shows that life is harsh and the blunt and abrupt end of the novel were naturalistic to me. Of course, this is not a true naturalist novel – but the elements are there.
The real reason to read this book is because Klosterman is a fine writer. Let me present you with three passages about Julia, Mitch, and Horace. Julia, a recent college graduate who is a high school teacher, is befriended by a fellow teacher who is a bit of a barfly and the shy Julia finds herself the belle of the ball for the first time in her life, and she is often a belle with a terrible hangover as she descends into heavy drinking because that’s where all the men are – bellied up at the bar and, in Julia’s mind, clamoring for her drunken attentions. She eventually sobers up a bit and looks like she might be heading toward a real relationship. But before that happens, Klosterman treats us to a soused Julia, a Julia who spends a lot of time sprawled in bar booths and in the backs of cars, having the sorts of conversations immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent time sprawled in bar booths and drunkenly declaring themselves in the backs of cars.
“I want to smooch Vance Druid,” Julia said. “I’m so serious. I want to walk to his house, knock on the door, and just smooch away. I want to enforce the Smoochie Rule. I’m serious. Nobody believes me but I want to smooch him hardcore.”
Julia said this from the backseat of Ted’s car. Ted was behind the wheel and Naomi was in the passenger seat. They had been drinking for seven hours. Ted was trying to drive off his buzz.
“You don’t wanna kiss that guy,” Naomi said in response. “That guy . . . you don’t need that guy. You can do better than that. He’s just a small-town drunk who needs new pants. You deserve a real man. And what the fuck’s the Smoochie Rule?”
“The Smoochie Rule is in effect!”
“You’re a crazy woman, you crazy woman.”
“Don’t tell me who isn’t crazy,” said Julia. “I’ll tell you who the crazy woman isn’t.”
Ted turned onto a gravel road. A fox ran across the path of his Chevy Cavalier, but no one inside the car noticed.
“Kissing is a problem,” slurred Ted. “Smooching, kissing, human relations, whatever you want to call it. It’s complex.”
“What are you talking about?” said Naomi. “You don’t know how to kiss people? Is that why you never kiss me? Because you don’t know how to kiss people? It’s not like driving a speedboat. It’s easy. A child could do it.”
“No, no. Shut your mouth, woman.” Ted drove with his knees while lighting a Camel with the car’s cigarette lighter. He shook the still-glowing lighter and threw it out the window. It was that kind of night. “That’s not what I mean. You don’t even know what I’m talking about. You never listen to me.”
“Then what are you talking about?”
“Here’s what I’m talking about,” said Ted. “I had a kissing problem when I was in college. Before I quit college. It was complicated. I still think about it.”
“What is this regarding?” Naomi demanded. “If you’re homosexual, I’m going to shoot myself. And you. And Jules probably.”
“What the fuck did I do?” screeched Julia.
We get so much in this passage. It may seem like it is just a perfect distillation of what a drunk conversation sounds like but it is so much more. First, we get the nostalgia of a time when three people didn’t think twice about getting into a car, one of them driving hammered. We get the sexual tension between Naomi and Ted. We get the loneliness of Julia and her desire to bag the enigmatic former high school football star. It is subtly and wickedly funny.
Here’s a passage from a Mitch scene. Mitch is in a car with five other teenage boys, all with specifically appropriate nicknames that will make zero sense unless you read the explanations, which is as it should be, and they are discussing the recent bad acts of their football coach and other matters.
“You know what would be cool?” Zebra asked rhetorically. “It would be cool if we could somehow plant cameras all over the school, or maybe even inside random houses. Then we could use the photographs to sexually blackmail people.”
“I heard,” said Curtis-Fritz, “that when Laidlaw’s wife left town for three days to take care of her dying mother, Tina McAndrew stayed at his house for the entire time. She would get up in the morning and make him pancakes.”
“That did not happen,” said Mitch. “There is no way that could have happened. He’s got three kids. Don’t you think the kids would notice that there’s a different woman in the house, having sex with their dad and feeding them pancakes?”
“I don’t know,” said Curtis-Fritz. “Maybe she she stayed in the basement.”
“I think you should get to play more,” Weezie said to Mitch. “I don’t care what Laidlaw thinks. You’re way smarter than Becker or Groff, even if you don’t always throw so good. And if you do play tonight, and if we run Flood Right 64, throw it to me in the flat. I’m always open in that play. Always. Every time. But they never throw it to me.”
The opening riff from “Band on the Run” came over the stereo.
“You see what I fucking mean?” said Zebra. “Q-98 is terrible. Wings? Who are these queers? I don’t like old songs.”
It was at this specific juncture that Ainge’s Oldsmobile passed a 1974 Plymouth Barracuda. The ‘Cuda was clean and the ‘Cuda was yellow. Its driver looked straight ahead, oblivious to the six people staring into his vehicle’s interior.
This was the point where five conversations became one conversation.
“Don’t even start with that shit,” Drug Man said to Curtis-Fritz. “We are not having this argument again. I’m only warning you once.”
“We don’t have to have it,” said Curtis-Fritz. “We don’t need to have an argument, because you know I’m right.”
“Not it’s not because you’re right. It’s because you’re a fucking cum receptacle.”
The one uniting conversation was who would win in a fight between Cubby Candy and an enormous kid named Grendel (which is the name of one of my cats, I feel I need to say). And in this conversation, we again get so much. The bizarre tendency among male teenagers to rename themselves. The chaos that ensues when so many young men are in one car. The obsessive theoretical conversations. The musical snobbery and tendency to see anything older than ten years in the past as old. But the best part is the fact that in this novel wherein some of the kids are interested in the fact that 1984 was around the corner and they had all read Orwell and even in their disturbing musings on what their future held, they still fantasized about a school with cameras everywhere. Now, of course, most schools have cameras and no one gets any sexual blackmail out of it.
Finally, let me share some Horace with you. Horace is gathered with his friends, drinking coffee, complaining about a woman who is running rough-shod over other women in a Bible study group. It degenerates in a manner that is both topical and typical.
“I can’t take it,” he said. “I just cannot take it. It’s like I’m living with the goddamn Ayatollah. From the start of supper until the end of Carson, all she does is rant about how Melba Hereford is a witch who needs to be thrown in the river. I keep telling Vernetta to just quit the goddamn Bible group if it causes her so much suffering, but she refuses. She thinks that’s what Melba wants. As if Melba cares about anyone who isn’t named Melba! The crazy old biddy. That goes for both of them. I don’t know which biddy is loonier. I’d really like to know if my wife is crazier than Melba.”
“If it’s a horse apiece,” said Marvin, “who gives a damn?”
“No shit,” said Gary.
Horace smiled and blew his nose. Marvin Windows knew what he was talking about.
“So, what are our thoughts on Grenada?” asked Horace. “Do we have an opinion on our situation, Marvin?”
“Do I have an opinion on what?”
“On Grenada,” said Horace. “We invaded the island of Grenada yesterday.”
“Where the Sam Hill is Grenada?”
“East of Central America,” said Horace. “They only have twelve hundred men in their entire military. The war is already over. Reagan just made the announcement. We won.”
“Why did we invade Grenada?” asked Marvin.
“We had to rescue some American medical students,” said Horace.
“There was a Marxist coup,” said Gary. “The Marxists are against medical students.”
“Huh,” said Marvin. “Well, I don’t have any opinion on the matter. I didn’t see the newspaper.”
Again, excellent topicality in this conversation but in it, we see that nothing really changes. The boys in the car, if they are lucky, will grow up and bitch and bicker like these old men in the diner. And some of them will be well-versed in current events and some will be clueless and despite their life experiences, they will still seem slightly like boys. And I was sure Mitch would become Horace as he aged, smarter and slightly deeper than his peers. I wonder if anyone else saw the similarities between them.
I think this book will become a part of the few books I re-read periodically. I read this book and the truth of all these people rang true to me from the first page and despite all of the marvelous dialogue, all the point-on descriptions, despite the overall mastery of this book, I think the real reason to read it is because it is so true. I intend to read everything from Klosterman I can get my hands on. I want to see how much more truth he may have to convey to me.