You'll either hate or love 'Owl'

September 25, 2008 8:29:00 AM PDT
The best thing about "Downtown Owl," Chuck Klosterman's first stab at fiction, is this: Every key character sounds suspiciously like Chuck Klosterman.

For the vaunted pop-culture critic's well-established - and notoriously devoted - fan-base, this will be a wildly welcome discovery, like a North Dakota corn farmer who finds his late-planted crops staving off Mother Winter's frost for a vital extra week. Something near pure joy.

Others will shake their heads by, approximately, page 65. They will openly rue Klosterman's fiction and their investment of time in it beginning on page 125 (or thereabouts).

About 30 pages later, owing to particularly sublime humor, they will warmly appreciate aspects of it. Then, by the novel's (rather abrupt) climax, they will end up undecided and possibly confused. They will neither regret their book purchase, nor pat themselves on the back for sage navigation of a bookseller's titles.

It is tempting to leave the argument here. If you appreciate Klosterman's distinctive nonfiction writing, "Owl" will be just the sort of novel for which you've been waiting. If you don't, it is not. But in the end it's just not that simple.

"Owl" is, essentially, a literary postcard from a town that could exist, but does not.

Owl, N.D., has seven bars, a hopping bowling alley and a struggling movie theater. In 1983, when the novel is set, residents are deeply ambivalent about Gordon Kahl, perpetually disgusted with the form of the local football team and unconsciously happy to pick through one another's personal debris.

Owl is home to our three main characters, who all seem deeply pained by their existence for various reasons. Mitch is a high school junior with frequent, phantasmagoric fantasies about killing his football coach, a repeat (and unrepentant) statutory rapist. Julia is a Madison, Wis., transplant who is roped into teaching the "Our State" course to eighth graders and numbs her discomfort with occasional pot and copious alcohol. Horace is a stoic, silent and deeply unlucky member of the town's 3 p.m. coffee drinking crew.

This trio take turns as the focus of a series of well-drawn vignettes that serve as the narrative device in "Owl." They are filled with trademark Klosterman wit and asides and they prove highly entertaining. One comedically rich and resonant scene involves teenage banter about who would win a hypothetical fight. Klosterman sums it up:

"This specific discussion - this hypothetical fist fight between Chris 'Grendel' Sellers and Cubby Candy - was the single most polarizing debate in the universe of Owl High School. For people like Drug Man and Curtis-Fritz and Mitch and Zebra and every other male between the ages of fourteen and nineteen, this was Roe v. Wade."

There are perhaps a dozen other chapters just as memorable in "Owl" - one focuses on an argument among the coffee drinkers that devolves into one calling the other a hippie orange juice drinker; in another Julia is hilariously set upon by a series of Owl's red-blooded bachelors during her first appearance at a local bar.

The problem is that the sum does not quite feel as good as its composite parts. There are linking elements and a plot - albeit a mostly actionless one until the end of the book - but "Owl" feels slightly disjointed. The abruptness makes it feel more like a first novel than it should.

This boils down to an issue with Klosterman's voice, a not quite love-it-or-leave it argument but a deeply polarizing one, nonetheless. Some will depart Owl's wide boulevards a little punch drunk, wondering about cohesion but fairly well entertained. Others will be happy to dive into the many grand diversions the author's prose and approach offer.

In the end, a better balance could be struck.


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