The best thing about Chuck Klosterman’s first novel, Downtown Owl, is that it reads exactly like a Chuck Klosterman book. You might also say — if you wanted to sound like the wiseacre author of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs himself, with his flair for embracing everything and (often maddeningly) its opposite — that the worst thing about Downtown Owl is that it reads exactly like a Chuck Klosterman book.
Happily, the plus side of Chuck sounding like Chuck far outguns the minus. Over the course of four previous books of rambling, hilarious reportage, Klosterman (Fargo Rock City) has established himself as a best-selling, BS’ing philosopher geek, his low/midbrow enthusiasms and informal temperament ably suited to throwing a floodlight on our pop-is-king cultural moment. He’s smart on small stuff we still tend to take for granted even as it consumes us (like media, sports, or TV), and his discursive, endlessly fascinated brain feels enjoyably let loose in this rangy novel.
Raised in North Dakota, Klosterman writes what he knows in Owl, inventing three not-that-intersecting citizens of Owl, N.D., pop. 850 or so, circa 1983 — 84. Mitch is a high school quarterback, Horace is a 73-year-old widower who yaks mournfully at the coffee shop, and Julia is a newly arrived social studies teacher (”Her apartment was like a bank vault with a refrigerator”). In alternating chapters, Klosterman roams around in their heads, turning out great line after great line as he vivifies the kind of small town where a ride home often takes only 18 seconds.
He’s an entertaining guy, but also capable of real insight and artistry. If there’s a problem here, it’s that Klosterman has too singular a voice for fiction. The people in Owl, especially his third-person narrator, occasionally sound a little too much like the nonfiction Klosterman (”Everybody is different,” says Julia, ”but everybody is the same”). It’s slightly distancing. And his ending is cruel and unusual, too dependent on an out-of-nowhere cataclysm to break up the Midwestern sameness. Life is normal, he seems to say, until it’s not. Typical Chuck. B+