Wednesday, October 08, 2008

New Release Spotlight: Downtown Owl

Downtown Owl
By Chuck Klosterman

Using his well-known wit, dry humor, and sarcastic voice, Chuck Klosterman welcomes readers to Owl, North Dakota. Owl is like many small American towns. There’s a café (Harley’s) where old men drink coffee, rehash arguments, and talk about high school football. Every night the same people drink—and get drunk—at the same bars (Yoda’s, Mick’s Tavern, the White Indian, the Oasis Wheel, and so forth). And teenage boys aimlessly drive around on deserted roads as they argue about the winner of an imaginary fight (Cubby Candy vs. Chris Sellers).

Set in the early 1980s, Downtown Owl is a 273-page character sketch of Owl and its residents. The book follows three main characters: Mitch Hrlicka, a ordinary teenager who is sick of talking about the “fight” between Cubby and Chris; Julia Rabia, a young teacher and new resident of Owl who never has to pay for a drink because she is the only available woman in town; and Horace Jones, a seventy-three-year-old man who enjoys living alone and drinking coffee at Harley’s each afternoon. For the majority of the book, the chapters alternate between each character. Only two chapters are devoted to characters outside the main three. (These two divergences were unneeded and a bit distracting.)

As with any novel that follows different characters who aren’t connected by a central plotline, the author runs the risk of creating a disjointed story that leaves the reader asking, “How does this all connect?” In the beginning, this question comes floating out of Downtown Owl. The main characters seem to be living different lives. What can a teenager, a teacher in her early twenties, and a seventy-something old man have in common? But then, the question disappears as Klosterman subtly connects Mitch, Julia, and Horace by way of the memories, experiences, and stories (not always their own) that they share. They reveal that the residents are connected by a collective conscious. Simply put, everyone in Owl knows everything about everyone.

Klosterman does a thorough job of developing Mitch, Julia, and Horace. Even more amazing is his ability to move between the characters’ voices, which are all very different. He rarely slips up. It is clear that he understands—and cares—for each of them. He takes the characters, and inadvertently the town, beyond their respective stereotypes and gives them their own unique storylines. Mitch struggles with the fact that his coach and English teacher, who calls Mitch Vanna because of the lack of vowels in his last name, impregnated a student and got away with it. Julia desperately tries to get a local legend and buffalo farmer to love her. Horace reflects on his life in Owl and struggles with a deep secret. And just when Klosterman has you feeling completely connected to the lives of his characters and to Owl, he plops a blizzard into the story and tests all of them.

Almost a character itself is Klosterman’s humor. The novel is filled with laugh-out-loud lines that beg to be read again and again. At the same time, his humor does not feel overdone or forced, but effortless, and he knows when to turn it on and off. There are funny lists scattered throughout the book. A particularly humorous one is Horace’s grocery list filled with “old man” food. It includes: “Campbell’s tomato soup…sausages (these were what he called hot dogs), candy… noodles (this is what he called Kraft Macaroni & Cheese), fake butter (this is what he called margarine), cookies…Elf Krispies (this is what he called Rice Krispies)…Wonder bread, and black licorice (this was not the same as candy, somehow).” This list is just the beginning of many comical lines, scenes, paragraphs, pages, chapters, and so on.

Upon first glance it seems Klosterman is merely regurgitating a story that has already been told. But Downtown Owl is about much more than cantankerous old men hanging out in a café, locals drinking cheap beer, and teenagers talking about a fight that hasn’t even happened.

Review by Megan Wellman, Indigo Editing & Publications, LLC

ISBN: 978-1-4165-4418-0
Publisher: Scribner
Pub Date: September 2008
Hardcover: $24.00

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