by Chuck Klosterman
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
If this isn’t the great North Dakota novel, I don’t know what is. When they teach
“Our State” in Fargo and Bismarck, Downtown Owl ought to be on the reading list,
enshrined alongside Lawrence Welk, knoephla soup, Angie Dickinson. . . and, yes, I
suppose we need to include that unfortunate incident with
Gordon Kahl and the federal troopers. But don’t let that Kahl
stuff fool you. Did you know that North Dakota has the
smallest percentage of non-religious residents of any state?
Chuck Klosterman, the author of Downtown Owl, had his
first professional writing gig in Fargo, North Dakota back in
ancient times (i.e. Bill Clinton’s first term). And though he
has gone on to a celebrated career, as the journalist who
best captures the fluttery pulse of whatever phenomenon
achieves fifteen minutes of fame in today’s pop culture, he
hasn’t forgotten his formative years. In his first novel, he
does for Owl, North Dakota, what Godzilla did to Tokyo,
albeit over the course of 275 pages.
And he does it in style. Klosterman has long shown that he
can write non-fiction prose with panache and a sure instinct
for finding the most compelling narrative angle in almost any set of circumstances.
He does the same in his first novel. Downtown Owl is a virtuoso effort, marked by
constantly shifting narrators, settings, and formats, but it never lags. It is always
clever, and often outright brilliant.
Klosterman doesn’t need much to get started. His intersecting plots are simple
enough. Julia, a new teacher shows up in Owl, and struggles to adapt to small town
life. Mitch, a third string quarterback on the high school team, nurses a deep grudge
against his hard-ass coach. Horace, a widower, passes most afternoons talking with
his buddies at the local diner. Hey, this is not The Brothers Karamazov. Most soap
operas dish up more engaging storylines fives afternoons every week. But
Klosterman works wonders with his simple characters and plots. By the time, he is
done with Owl, North Dakota, you wouldn’t trade it for Peyton Place and Winesburg,
Ohio put together.
Klosterman is not afraid of trying for extravagant effects. One of his finest chapters
is in the form of questions and answers from a high school exam on George Orwell’s
novel 1984. Another section of this book offers a textual deconstruction of a
flirtatious barroom conversation, and is far more insightful than anything I’ve read in
Derrida. The book opens and closes with newspaper clippings from the Bismarck
Tribune. Along the way, we are told about anti-tax militant Gordon Kahl, a criminal in
the mind of the US government (please excuse the oxymoron), but a hero to many
residents of Owl, North Dakota. In other words, at any point during your progress
through this novel, the next chapter is likely to be very different from the one you
are currently reading.
Along the way, we get all the ingredients readers have come to expect from Chuck
Klosternan. As usual, he is very amusing and sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Pop culture references come at you faster than ravens rushing to greet Tippi
Hedren. He is the master of the set-up, the throwaway line, the ironic aside, the
The book builds up to a confrontation between two of the nastiest characters in the
city of Owl. A neanderthal high school athlete named Chris Sellers, nicknamed
Grendel, is looking to throttle Cubby Candy, who is smaller but makes up for his
disadvantage in size by his willingness to fight dirty. “There are only three qualities
required for successful fighting,” Candy explains. “I have them all, and I have them
to the highest possible degree.” These are (1) a total disregard for pain, (2) a full
commitment to winning no matter what heinous action is required, and (3) the right
motive. For Candy the right motive is a complete absence of motive. This spurs him
to continue fighting long after others would give up.
These two thugs are only minor characters throughout most of the book. But by the
time they face off at the apple orchard in the final pages of the Downtown Owl,
Klosterman has built them into larger-than-life protagonists. I haven’t seen such pre-
fight hype since the first Ali-Fraizer bout at Madison Square Garden.
In these closing moments, Klosterman shows off his full mastery of the narrative. He
brings all of his plots to a slam-bang conclusion almost simultaneously. And he adds
a sweet ironic twist at the end that imparts a piquant flavor to the whole endeavor.
Capping a book this good with an ending that lives up to everything that went
before is no small feat. For my part, I give both thumbs up to Downtown Owl. Let’s
hope Chuck Klosterman’s debut novel is the first of many.
This review originally appeared on Blogcritics.
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