"You know, people always say that nothing changes in a small town, but—whenever they say that—they usually mean that nothing changes figuratively," a high-school principal in Owl, N.D., explains to his new history teacher at the outset of Chuck Klosterman's debut novel Downtown Owl. "The truth is that nothing changes literally. It's always the same people, doing the same things."
This musing, the first of many in Downtown Owl, is an equally precise analysis of rock critic Klosterman's infuriating and bewitching foray into fiction. The standard complaint about Klosterman as a pop-culture essayist is that he is a literary slacker, stubbornly quotidian: He can write about the familiar with fresh insight, but he refuses to write about anything other than the familiar. Downtown Owl takes Klosterman into his most well-worn territory of all—the Great Plains hamlets where he grew up listening to ZZ Top—but what the book reveals is that the writer's deepest flaws are in the style of his individual sentences, which he is all but incapable of varying. Downtown Owl follows the mental life of three citizens in 1983: Julia Rabia, the new teacher who becomes the belle of the local bar; Mitch Hrlicka, an Owl High backup quarterback; and Horace Jones, a 73-year-old retired farmer. The episodic chapters alternate between their points of view, but the voice is permanently Klosterman's: a mock-formal, digressive mode somewhere between David Foster Wallace and Dave Barry. A barfly prefaces a conversational point with "that wasn't the crux of the issue;" when Julia is bored, her "words and sentences sounded like side three of Metal Music Machine, an album she had never heard of." When in doubt, a novelist should trust his characters; Klosterman turns to Lou Reed.
But Klosterman has one saving grace: He's curious. He wants to know what's going on inside his characters' heads and, possessing no gift for the art, he works at it. (He even lists the internal monologues of all 22 students in Mitch's English class.) The obvious effort allows Downtown Owl to expressly address the two questions all novels implicitly broach: Why do other people make the choices they do, and do those choices ultimately matter? These questions—which make life seem as improvised and accidental as a football Hail Mary—become urgent in the face of imminent death, which Klosterman provides in the form of a freak blizzard. When Julia, Mitch and Horace are faced with their final decisions, the observations of Downtown Owl take on a mature poignancy. "We are remembered for the totality of our accomplishments," Klosterman writes, "but we are defined by the singularity of our greatest failure….We are what we cannot do." What Klosterman can do is consider these mistakes with uncommon clarity. The book is a paradox that would likely please its author: It would be better if it had been written by someone other than Chuck Klosterman, yet only Chuck Klosterman could have written it.
Chuck Klosterman reads on Sunday, Sept. 21, at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm. Free.