The Backroad Librarian: Downtown Owl
Chuck Klosterman knows the rural Midwest from the inside and can pierce its foibles with an outsider's relish. But where does he stand?
By Chuck Klosterman
275 pp. Scribner, 2008. $24.00.
According to a new study on the geography of personality, North Dakota is the most extroverted, agreeable state in the union. Just ask Julia Rabia, one of three characters at the center of Chuck Klosterman’s recently published debut novel, Downtown Owl.
Directionless, fresh out of college, Julia moves to the small town of Owl, North Dakota, to take a teaching job at the high school. The year is 1983. Julia’s previous experience in the classroom had amounted to a single semester of student teaching in Chicago, where “half the kids treated her like shit and the other half ignored her completely.” Not so in Owl. The students at Owl High School are clean-cut, God-fearing kids who go to church on Sundays and help their parents farm. They are, Julia observes, “maddeningly polite and overwhelmingly blond.”
Of course, as with any novel about small-town life after Winesburg, Ohio, Downtown Owl reveals the residents of Owl to be far kookier and more complex than they initially appear. Klosterman, drawing on his own upbringing in rural North Dakota, explores the tension between private sins and public respectability in a town where everyone knows everything about everyone else. He introduces us to the football coach who habitually gets his female students pregnant, the washed-up quarterback who knows that the play that made him famous was a fluke, the widower who is secretly grateful that his wife passed away at forty-four.
“It wasn’t like they had never had a chance to be together,” Horace Jones reasons. “They were married for twenty-five years. What else were they going to talk about? They had run out of things to say after the first decade.”
Klosterman writes with particular empathy for the young men who populate his novel, garden-variety teenage dirtbags who listen to ZZ Top and instigate fistfights for reasons that they don’t entirely understand. You can be sure that there is an element of autobiography here. Yet there’s also a broader, more philosophical point that Klosterman is making about the opacity of human motivation, about the ways in which none of us necessarily has access to the real reasons behind why we do what we do. Instead, we muddle our way through, heedless of the fact that a blizzard could come barreling across the prairie and deny us a second chance to get it right. And sometimes it does.
Photo: Anthony Kulig
Downtown Owl opens and closes with reports of a deadly February blizzard, and so the novel is shot through with pathos — a sense that not all of Klosterman’s characters are going to make it to the end of the book. Of course, the good people of Owl don’t know that some of them will have a date with destiny on February 4, 1984. But Klosterman’s narrator does know, and, although he never identifies himself, I would argue that this omniscient narrator is actually one of the most interesting characters in the novel. Not because he knows who survives the storm and who doesn’t, but because, for instance, he knows that the ham and scalloped potatoes served after Alma Jones’ memorial service were “standard funeral fare” in Owl. Klosterman’s narrator knows Owl as only a native son could, yet he’s also seen the world, and he wants you to know it. Describing a car full of teenage boys driving aimlessly around town, he observes that “there were multiple conversations happening at the same time; it was like an Altman film, although nobody inside the car had ever seen an Altman film.”
"Standard funeral fare" in rural North Dakota
Photo: Seasonal Ontario Food
The first time I read that line, I just chalked it up to Chuck Klosterman showing off. But the more times I read it over, the more clearly Klosterman’s narrator comes into focus for me as the wisecracking smart kid who grew up in Owl and then made tracks for the Twin Cities as quickly as he could. His voice is the voice of what poet Kathleen Norris has called “Dakota in diaspora,” that wave of young people who took stock of the rural communities in which they grew up and decided (in sobering numbers) to make a go of it somewhere, anywhere else. The jokes that he cracks are the jokes of a man who has lost something enormous and has no idea how to grieve for it.
Don’t get me wrong: Downtown Owl is a very funny read, and anyone who has ever spent time in the rural Midwest will appreciate the novel’s wry glimmers of insight into small-town life. But I think that it is this unexamined sense of in-betweenness on the part of the narrator, this unresolved relationship to a place called home, that prevents the novel from ever settling into a place of moral seriousness. Instead, Downtown Owl dances on the surface; it reaches for the glib one-liner instead of the hard truth. When a chance comment in the Owl High School locker room sets off a series of events that puts a dozen lives at risk, Klosterman could have seized the chance to reflect on the nature of responsibility in a world where choices have unforeseen consequences.
Instead, he nihilistically shrugs his shoulders, as if to say: Bummer, man. For want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.