BOOK REVIEW: "Downtown Owl: A Novel," by Chuck Klosterman

Written by Ben Wagner on . Posted in Uncategorized

The Rhombus faithful may recognize Chuck Klosterman from his large library of work as a columnist (for Esquire, Spin, The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc.), one of his four non-fiction books (Fargo Rock City; Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs; Killing Yourself to Live; Chuck Klosterman IV), his appearances on ESPN’s “The B.S. Report with Bill Simmons” podcast or from any conversation you may have ever had with Rhombus Magazine’s illustrious editor.

Downtown Owl is Mr. Klosterman’s first foray into fiction and is a novel (if you can really call it that) unlike any I have ever read. The author tells his story from the viewpoint of three central characters living in a small rural town in North Dakota. The characters are seemingly unrelated and are not interconnected in any way besides the fact that they happen to live in the same town. Chuck Klosterman grew up in rural North Dakota and he undoubtedly knew people like the characters in the book. Interestingly enough Klosterman himself seems to have very little invested in any of the three characters. Thus, we as readers don’t find ourselves emotionally invested in them either. In many ways the three characters cease to be protagonists and instead become representative of the concept of small town life.

The plot of Downtown Owl is very non-traditional and, in many ways, the book is about nothing. The book reads almost like a collection of short stories or anecdotes told from three different viewpoints that explore and flesh out the town of Owl. Since the book lacks any central plot, Klosterman often digresses into seemingly worthless tidbits of information, such as famous play’s from the local high school football team’s history or how one of the townspeople has a huge bison farm. The book uses this flawed thematic device to create an astoundingly deep and accurate portray of the life in the small town of Owl. Even without a central plot to drive it, Downtown Owl never seems boring or uninteresting because the digression keeps you interested in the quirky town. The book eventually stops reading like a book about nothing and becomes a book about everything, whether it be old age, coming of age or how the Allman Brothers sucked.

Fans of Chuck Klosterman will instantly recognize his unique voice. Although the characters are all quite different people, the third person narrative voice is most definitely that of Chuck, even to the point that the dialogue of his characters begins to sound like him at times. While this flaw can be distracting, it actually adds something to the story. Klosterman’s trademark wit and insight about seemingly unimportant and ordinary things comes through even in a fictional story. Therefore Downtown Owl becomes, in reality, an exploration of the psyche of small-town life. Anecdotes about high school football becomes analogous to what it is like growing up in a small town. A running theme about which of the town bullies would win in a fight really becomes metaphor for what it is like to be in a place where everyone knows what you do and yet no one knows who you are. In classic Klosterman style, ordinary events are broken down and overthought to the point that we find deeper meaning in something as mundane as teaching high school history.

Downtown Owl is an incredibly flawed book. It features no real plot, characters in which we are emotionally uninvested, an ending that offers little resolution and characters that seem much to insightful for their own good. Add all these flaws together and you get a book that is so terribly flawed that it’s brilliant. The book’s flaws make it interesting, just as the flaws in the people of Owl make them interesting.  4 out of 5 stars.

Downtown Owl is a novel featuring adult language and is not suitable for anyone without the maturity level to handle such language.

Downtown Owl and other books by Chuck Klosterman can be purchased at the author’s Amazon page.

Ben Wagner is a Correspondant for Rhombus Magazine and has spent far too much time looking for deeper life meaning in Chuck Klosterman’s work. If you liked this review, please let him know by following him on Twitter @ben_wagner

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