Order DOWNTOWN OWL here
Other Chuck Klosterman Books Reviewed:
Fargo Rock City (2001)
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs (2003)
Killing Yourself to Live (2005)
John S. Laidlaw was a football coach, a pheasant hunter, a two-pack-a-day smoker, a notorious cheapskate, a deeply closeted atheist, and an outspoken libertarian. But he was also an English teacher, and-were it not for his preoccupation with convincing female students to have intercourse with him inside his power-blue Caprice Classic - he might have been among the best educators in the entire state of North Dakota. He was certainly the finest teacher in Owl, even when you factored in the emotional cruelty and the statutory raping.
There are few columnists that I read religiously. One, in fact. Chuck Klosterman has a pen that transcends the arts of journalism and essayism. He is witty, sincere and has scientific curiosity towards the most awesome pop culture subjects, ranging from basketball to Britney Spears' pants (or the absence of). I've been a outspoken fan, since someone first recommended his essays to me, sometime around 2010. For that very reason, I've been unsure about whether or not I should read his novels. Why try and change an enjoyable relationship, right? My inner completist spoke louder on this one and I finally picked up DOWNTOWN OWL, after months of debating with myself. Turned out, it was a great idea, because Klosterman's debut novel is terrific. More important, it's very, very faithful to his signature style. DOWNTOWN OWL proudly takes its place in the legacy Chuck Klosterman is building for himself.
The town of Owl, North Dakota doesn't really exist. But like all small towns, it revolves around its people. DOWNTOWN OWL revolves around teenager Mitch, going through an existential slump, new girl in town Julia and old-timer Horace. It's the story of their life and how they are affected by the place they live in. The proximity, the isolation from other patches of people alongside the North Dakota landscape, makes everything larger than it ought to be. The performance of the high school football team becomes a matter of life and death, the legend of a past quarterback is haunting him in his attempt to find a meaningful relationship, the youth is split over the outcome of an hypothetical fight between the town's biggest kid and wild, violent outcast. When everything around you is hopelessly normal, normal life takes mythological dimension and the people around you become stuff of legend, whether they like it or not.
I come from a small town, myself. It's about eight or nine times bigger than Owl, but I could still relate to most of its content. The importance of the relationship to sport in Owl, was so well-drawn. When you live isolated from big centers, your way of comparing yourselves is mediated through television (at least in 1984, where DOWNTOWN OWL takes place) and since there is no entertainment industry in small, remote places, the main token of comparison is sports. It breeds an obsessive, almost unhealthy relationship between the city and its athletes, represented in the novel by secondary characters Chris "Grendel" Sellers and Vance Druid. They could never have been protagonist of this novel, because Klosterman aimed at "normal" people, but they could have never been left out, because athletes are the Gods of small town mythology. It was an interesting juxtaposition to have put Sellers, a meathead who's almost in symbiosis with his sport (he doesn't have much else in mind) and Druid, maker of the most glorious play in Owl history and struggling with his own legend. They represented two aspects of the same idea.
There are only three qualities required for successful fighting. I have them all, and I have them to the highest possible degree. The first is a high threshold for pain. Most people surrender the moment they start to ache or bleed; I only feel pain in retrospect, so this is not a problem. The second quality is commitment. What are you willing to do to win a fight? Most people thin there are rules to fighting, even when it's a street fight. There are certain thing they won't do: They won't kick someone who's already on the ground. They won't throw a bottle. They won't bit a wrist. People who follow such rules are not committed to fighting. I, however, am fully committed, all the time.
The third quality is motive. Why are you fighting? What are you trying to achieve? This, I ,suspect, is the true key to my unstoppability: I never have a motive.
While I loved Mitch and Julia's chapters, I found myself struggling through Horace's. Nothing against him or old people in general, but except for two or three chapters (including the Gordon Kahl chapter), I didn't find much interest in the discussions that laid out a more historical perspective of Owl. It rarely gelled with whatever else the rest of the city was preoccupied about. It was minor, but it was there, I found myself skimming through his chapters past page 200. But Kloserman's approach keeps it fresh and keeps it true to small town philosophy by never keeping it to one voice. In that regards, it reminded me of William Faulnker's novels THE SOUND AND THE FURY and AS I LAY DYING as people are so close to each other, their presence echo in one another's chapter. There is a fragile interdependence in their life that is completely abstract to big city dwellers.
To give you an idea of what to expect from DOWNTOWN OWL, it reads like a 273 pages Chuck Klosterman essay about issues that are 100% fictional (or maybe 99%, since they have metaphorical value). If you were on the fence after reading the thirty-something pages story at the end of IV, please, don't be. This is different and much more faithful to what Klosterman does with his non-fiction. If you already are a Chuck Klosterman fan, read DOWNTOWN OWL. If you felt like he was interesting, but you'd rather shoot yourself in the eye with a harpoon than read non-fiction, read DOWNTOWN OWL.That fuzzy dude from North Dakota has mad skills around the keyboard, but he also happens to have mad observational and analytical skills as well. This translates to fiction in all kinds of surprising ways.