5. Downtown Owl

By Chuck Klosterman. 2008. 

Written right, normal is weird, because, in real life, weird is normal.

Downtown Owl has no plot. Set in a fictitious North Dakota town (Owl), its chapters rotate three characters: Mitch, Julia, and Horace, repeatedly in that order, except a few welcome surprise chapters toward the end.

And what a fucking ending. It rouses heavy questions about fiction. It makes me wonder if author (and master culture journalist whose essays have long been my secret cure for writer’s block) Chuck Klosterman is cruel.

Characters don’t change, the style shifts wildly, and most scenes feel tangential. But unconventionality is ideal to tell a story with high school football and friends getting drunk. Klosterman is such a funny and specific writer that lines like this…

Horace’s pajamas made him clownlike. He was not aware of this. 

… and this…

Julia was now 90 percent sure she was attracted to this man and 49 percent sure he was attracted to her. 

… and countless others compel investment until the book ends too quickly. Old guys arguing at a coffee-shop counter can be rich entertainment. A drunk young teacher acting belligerent in public is like a pop-art painting that expresses inarticulable ideas about life.

They’re so normal. Except no one’s normal. Horace, a widower, likes solitude genuinely. Mitch reads 1984 for class and thinks Orwell’s future sounds fine, because he doesn’t understand why people decorate, and sex brings misery in small towns.

So how was 1984 a dystopia? It seemed ordinary. What was so unusual about everyone knowing all the same things?

He’s being a smart-ass, but to himself he has a point.

Mitch, Julia and Horace are not heroes or villains. They’re not anything, except alone or with other people. Sharing their time is refreshing.

But does Klosterman hate them? Of course not, and yet… when a long-promised killer storm arrives at the ending, it’s vicious. If nothing is necessary in a book with no plot, bringing devastation seems mean.

Does it matter? Do fates in fiction matter? Why go huge if you’re not saying something meaningful? Why anything?

Downtown Owl is more than funny; it bent my mind. We are fascinating contradictions. Hail Klosterman.