Saturday, November 29, 2008

Chuck Klosterman's "Downtown Owl"

The novelist Théophile Gautier once cracked that no man becomes a critic until he proves to himself that he cannot be a poet. But here comes Chuck Klosterman, the pop culture observer, making the transition to novelist with Downtown Owl. This is not his first foray into fiction, however; Klosterman concluded his last essay collection, Chuck Klosterman IV, with a short story—clearly, he’d caught the fiction bug, and a book like Owl was inevitable.

To call it a novel, however, is a stretch. Following the inhabitants of a fictional, rural, North Dakota town, Owl centers on three characters: Mitch, a third-rate quarterback so melancholic that he feels nostalgic for the time he had mono; Julia, a new high school teacher who quickly joins the town’s drinking culture; and Horace, an elderly widower who spends his days rolling dice at the local greasy spoon, sipping coffee and reflecting on his past. Each chapter, with a handful of exceptions, rotates between their stories.

Beyond their shared setting, little connects the trio. The book plays out more like The Spoon River Anthology or Winesburg, Ohio—a collection of loosely related character-portraits depicting the closeted sordidness of small town life. (Serendipitously, Downtown Owl arrived at a ripe moment, as the McCain campaign scrambled to accomplish the opposite—to equate small town America with simple and honest virtues.)

Klosterman defines his characters through anecdote because it is through these small moments that he believes the residents can best be understood. “We all believe that we are a certain kind of person,” Klosterman writes in a Mitch section, “but we never know until we do something that proves otherwise, or until we die.” He illustrates those otherwise-proving somethings, usually a low moment in the townspeople’s lives. “We are defined,” he writes, “by the singularity of our greatest failure,” as in this passage:

“Julia noticed that a few of Ted’s peers referred to him as ‘Kleptosaur.’ One night she asked him why; it was because he’d been caught shoplifting a plastic dinosaur as a third grader.”

By indulging his curiosity about the minutiae of the most ancillary actors in the town, Klosterman spreads himself thin. Downtown Owl can’t decide whether it’s a loosely connected short story collection, a la Sherwood Anderson, or a novel—that is, a narrative, in which characters serve as actors in a drama that develops over time. Those small stories can be engaging, and the book has some wonderful chapters, but nothing much happens in Downtown Owl to justify the persistent presence of the handful of leading characters.

The book opens with a faux-newspaper article detailing a severe storm; the book proper then begins several months earlier, introducing a small measure of narrative tension that goes ignored for the subsequent 230 pages. In the meantime, Klosterman invests his trio’s lives with very little drama, only minor tensions within the rotating perspectives. Horace may be the lone exception, as Klosterman slowly reveals his increasingly complex backstory; the rest of the characters hardly develop. In fact, most chapters devoted to any of the three central characters devolve into ruminations on other residents; Mitch muses on his friends and football coach; Julia runs down lists of the local barflies; Horace mulls over his companions at the coffee shop. It feels as though the author delivered a stack of short stories to an editor, who recommended inventing a tripartite framing device to tie them all together.

In the end, Owl emerges as Klosterman’s central character. Like its inhabitants, the town is flat. Literally: “When [Julia] looked out her bedroom window, she could see for ten miles to the north. Maybe for twenty miles…It was like the earth had been pounded with a rolling pin.” But abstractly, as well. As the principal explains to Julia: “It’s a down town, Owl…you’ve probably heard that the movie theater is going to close, and I’m afraid that’s true: it is closing. But the bowling alley is thriving. It’s probably the best bowling alley in the region.”

Owl even protects its own flatness: those who upset its status quo, like the fire-and-brimstone preacher that Klosterman briefly touches on, are expelled; and those who cannot be exiled are killed. Thus the killer storm that strikes at book’s end, a natural disaster of Noah’s-flood proportions that serves a similar purpose—not necessarily to cleanse the earth of the “wicked,” but to restore its own evenness by eliminating those characters that would disturb its self-regulating order. But to convey how Middle America fights to maintain its plainness, Klosterman unnecessarily mimics his own subject—Downtown Owl need not have been as flat as its eponymous town.