February 1, 2009

Book Review: Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman

Title: Downtown Owl
Author: Chuck Klosterman
Plot Summary: Three residents of Owl, North Dakota, deal with their lives in the winter of 1983.
Verdict: Skip (especially if you are at all familiar with Klosterman's style of writing)

Ever since being introduced to Killing Yourself to Live, I've been a Chuck Klosterman fan. Chuck seems to write like a hyperanalytical version of how I think, and, well, isn't that what draws us towards our favorite narratives? Being able to see parts of ourselves in the main character, or imagine what we'd do in that person's place? He's more, how to put this, focused and critical than I am, but still, I could hear Chuck speaking my thoughts and providing some insight into them. (David Foster Wallace is another person I feel this way about.)

So after finishing that book, I went back and read his first two, Fargo Rock City and Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. I then attended a book signing at BookPeople where he signed copies of Chuck Klosterman IV. I've read all four books and generally enjoyed them, although since I don't share his fascination with 80s glam metal, Fargo Rock City wasn't the most enthralling material. But it was still fun.

At the end of IV, Chuck includes a short chapter from some fiction he'd been writing. It's about a drug-addled newspaper reporter in his mid-20s who lives in a small Midwestern town, seems bored with life, and feels disconnected from the people he knows. From what I have gathered about Chuck's background from reading his nonfiction, I bet $5 there's more than a little of himself in this character.

It was with these facts in mind (at least unconsciously) that I cracked open Downtown Owl, Chuck's first full-length work of fiction. I think I started it last weekend night; by Thursday night I'd finished it. The book is told from the viewpoint of three people: Mitch, a high school senior; Julia, a new teacher in her mid-20s who is a fish out of water in ND; and Horace, a 73-year old retired farmer and coffee afficionado. We also get throwaway chapters told from the viewpoints of Mitch's football coach English teacher/supposed arch nemesis (John) and the resident school sociopath (Cubby).

Put mildly, it's disappointing. Here's a couple reasons why:

(Warning: may contain minor spoilers)
  • All the characters speak and think like Chuck, even the characters outside the primary three. Chuck has a very distinct style of communicating his thoughts, which (as stated previously) I thoroughly enjoy. But this style shines through when any of his characters speak or think, and that fact really kills the immersion and suspension of disbelief. I really noticed this in the chapter where Julia and Vance have a conversation and Chuck compares what they say with what they really mean. That chapter really brought out the Chuck-ness inside both Vance and Julia, which is strange if you think about it, because these people are supposed to be Vance and Julia -- not Chuck Klosterman.

    Similarly, lots of Chuck's past comes out in the characters. Mitch is on the football team (and not very good at it), just like Chuck. Julia debates music criticism like Chuck. Horace is the only primary character who doesn't seem very Chuck-like; not very coincidentally, I found myself caring about Horace the most, especially in the passages where he reminisces about his wife's terminal illness, his big secret, and his life since those incidents. In fact, the chapter where Horace goes over the details of his big secret is probably the best in the book. I found myself eagerly reading ahead and getting more and more drawn into it. Unfortunately, it lasts all of 5-6 pages and it has absolutely no effect on the rest of the novel. Feh.
  • There's no real plot -- the characters just kind of meander along in their daily lives, doing and saying what they normally do. Nothing happens. Nobody does anything interesting. Mitch accidentally starts a fight between the school's lunkhead and sociopath, and Julia starts a "love" interest, and Horace reminisces about his life, and there's a blizzard, but nobody has any real problems that go anywhere. This might be what life really was like in mid-80s in small-town North Dakota, a subject that Chuck undoubtedly knows tons about, but it doesn't make for compelling reading material.
  • The ending is just ... strange. I'm really picky about endings. They can make or break a book (or movie or TV show or whatever). In the vein of the second bullet, there's no real ending to Downtown Owl, just sort of a deus ex machina that impacts all the characters. There's also your standard "newspaper column ending" that beats you over the head with an obvious incongruity/unfairness in life -- but because there was no build-up or development to this, nor any emotion inherent in any of the characters or plot, this ending just comes off as ... strange.
Combine "characters I can't get into or believe" with "nonexistent plot" and you've got a recipe for a bad book. I really only kept reading because it was easy going and I wanted to finish it (I don't think I've ever not finished reading a fiction book) and I'm still loyal to Mr. Klosterman as a person :-)

Ya hear that, Chuck? I still love ya, and I'll keep re-reading the four nonfiction books of yours that I own. But please hire someone to edit out your own voice from the characters in future fiction books :-)

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