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Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman

Downtown Owl (2008)

by Chuck Klosterman

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8713115,503 (3.5)26



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My adult son was a big fan of Chuck Klosterman's Fargo: Rock City, so I thought I'd give his novel, DOWNTOWN OWL, a try. And it was a most enjoyable read. It's what I have to assume is a pretty accurate look at high school life in the early 80s (twenty-plus years after my time in those grungy halls). As far as Klosterman's take on small town life and how stultifying and soul-killing it can be, he nailed that hands down, with his portrayals of the old-timers' coffee klatsch in the local diner and the desperate drinking of younger adults in the several seedy downtown saloons. Not to mention the exaggerated importance of high school sports and the football coach with a weakness for sixteen year-old girls.

And all the high school English classes are studying Orwell's 1984 as that year is rung in by the citizens of Owl, which gives the story some minor literary undertones, something the author weaves in well.

The popular music of the era can almost be heard blasting in the backdrop of this narrative of tiny Owl, North Dakota, and the surprising and catastrophic conclusion could probably only ring true in that flat and desolate setting.

Klosterman's dialogue and inner musings by his characters - teens and adults alike - range from moving to very dark to downright hilarious. Not a book for the squeamish, certainly. Highly recommended for the forty-something former headbanger crowd.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER ( )
  TimBazzett | May 25, 2017 |
It seems like a pretty straightforward novel about small town life. Then the last few chapters derail it. I'm pretty annoyed by the ending. It was good, don't get me wrong, but I'm upset about what he does to Julia. Wtf? ( )
  staceyfronczak | Mar 12, 2017 |
It's not usually a hard question: "What are you reading about?" Most books helpfully even give you clues on the back cover, with a quick summation you can offer up. "The history of the original Dream Team in 1992." "Jonathan Franzen didn't feel like enough people were paying attention to him so he wrote the same book three times."

When I got that this time, I hesitated. "It's about ... a small town in North Dakota, I guess?" Which is true, but it's not really about the town, it's about the people. And while that seems like the same thing, it's not. You're not reading the detailed history since its founding, you're getting a small snapshot of a few lives. The best description I could come up with was, "It's the story of a small North Dakota town in the 80s. The events that happen are fairly normal for a small town, or at least that would be, individually. Your average small town would have one or zero of these events happening. That four or five of them are happening is nonsense, but that's kind of immaterial."

I am not a great person to be asking for book recommendations.

The author, Chuck Klosterman, like him or love him, studies people. Profiling, describing and intuiting their reasons for existing, most of his authorial life revolved around trying to explain someone (or a group of someones).

So you can understand why, when he's trying to set a scene, it's a bit like listening to a German opera — intellectually, you understand that it's probably very beautiful, but in the moment it sounds like large bears mating. And, given that the novel takes place in the middle of nowhere, North Dakota, it's not even a very interesting German opera (or ursine copulation, depending on where you were in the metaphor).

The first third of the book is dull. A slog. I tell you this so you can prepare for it — gird yourself, lay in provisions, whatever you need to do to get through it. Because it's worth it. I've seen the other side, and it is sublime.

Because Klosterman eventually gets around to what he does best — explaining people. These characters are so vivid their mood swings started affecting how I was doing in the real world. Their actions and reactions and emotions are authentic, to themselves and to human nature. Even the most unbelievable, freakish characters are eventually explained and vindicated, even if that explanation is completely batshit crazy.

Explaining any of the plot seems simultaneously like cheating you and utterly pointless — without the connecting web, plucking at any individual strand leaves you wanting for the whole. It's raw, it's gritty, it's real, and it's definitely worth a read. ( )
1 vote thoughtbox | May 27, 2016 |
Reviewed 3/15: A re-read, originally read 2/11. This is my pick for our book club this month. I really enjoyed the book the second time around, and even though I knew the semi-surprise ending was coming, nothing was ruined. The climax to that point was even better because I remembered what happened, but not exactly how. It’s a lot of story for a quick resolution, but I appreciate it because Klosterman eliminated several main characters, which isn’t something a lot of authors do.

Originally read and reviewed 2/11: Though "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs" had always caught my eye (what a title!) in the bookstore, I never read a Klosterman book until I picked up "Downtown Owl" at my local library. I flipped to the inside flap and was hooked.

"Somewhere in North Dakota, there is a town called Owl that isn't there. Disco is over, but punk never happened. They don't have cable. They don't really have pop culture, unless you count grain prices and alcoholism. People work hard and then they die. They hate the government and impregnate teenage girls. But that's not nearly as awful as it sounds; in fact, sometimes it's perfect."

The story is told from three main points of view: Mitch, a high school student, Julia, a high school teacher new to Owl, and Horace, a man who's lived in Owl his entire 73 years. Every so often, a secondary character will narrate a short chapter, but it really relies on the three main characters, and it really works being written this way. The characters are realistic and unique individuals. Even without the chapter "titles" indicating who was speaking, their personalities come through immediately.

For at least 3/4ths of the story, I had no clue how the narrators fit together. (Besides Julia teaching at the high school Mitch attends, their paths never cross.) I didn't read a chapter and then say 'Oh, I know what's going to happen. He's going to twist it like this, and then this will happen.' I genuinely had no clue, even at the climax. That, I think, is super powerful. How amazing to have your reader totally in the dark, clueless about what will happen, but loving the story you're telling? Impressive work! There is no foreshadowing, there are no hints at what will happen. I literally had no idea what would make the story end. And, because of that, I technically had no idea why the story was being told - but it was enjoyable just the same. It was an easy read because once you start, you can't put it down. The chapters are so short and so intriguing you keep saying "Just one more, just one more!"

One of my favorite passages follows. I love when authors get down something you've felt forever, and put it in these perfect words and you stop and say YES. THAT is what I've been feeling all this time.
"Sometimes you think, Hey, maybe there's something else out there. But there really isn't. This is what being alive feels like, you know? The place doesn't matter. You just live."

The ending, to me, was a total surprise. It's based on true events, so I suppose if you know your North Dakota history (the subject Julia teaches, it just so happens) you might have an idea what's coming. But if you don't, I don't advise you to look up the dates on Wikipedia. Just read it. You'll be shocked at the end, but it's one of the best endings I've ever read in a book. Not a hint of corniness, no deus ex machina - just perfection. ( )
  howifeelaboutbooks | Nov 4, 2015 |
It's okay, a little slice of life story, but it didn't have much oomph. It can't compare to his non-fiction, but it's still worth reading. If you like Tom Perotta or Jeffrey Eugenides and are looking for something similar this is a good book for you. I liked 2/3 of the end, it should have gone all the way.

Edit: After a day of reflection I think it's better than I gave it credit for. He does some nice subtle inter-weaving that took some separation to see. ( )
  rockinghorsedreams | Nov 13, 2014 |
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For Melissa, and for North Dakota
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When Mitch Hrlicka heard that his high school football coach had gotten another teenage girl pregnant, he was forty bushels beyond bamboozled.
The middle class does not exist. If you believe you are part of the middle class, it just mean you're rich and insecure or poor and misinformed.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743573722, Audio CD)

New York Times bestselling author and “oneofAmerica’stop cultural critics” (Entertainment Weekly) Chuck Klosterman’s debut novel brilliantly captures the charm and dread of small town life—now available in trade paperback. Somewhere in rural North Dakota, there is a fictional town called Owl. They don’t have cable. They don’t really have pop culture, but they do have grain prices and alcoholism. People work hard and then they die. But that’s not nearly as awful as it sounds; in fact, sometimes it’s perfect. Mitch Hrlicka lives in Owl. He plays high school football and worries about his weirdness, or lack thereof. Julia Rabia just moved to Owl. A history teacher, she gets free booze and falls in love with a self-loathing bison farmer. Widower and local conversationalist Horace Jones has resided in Owl for seventy-three years. They all know each other completely, except that they’ve never met. But when a deadly blizzard— based on an actual storm that occurred in 1984—hits the area, their lives are derailed in unex- pected and powerful ways. An unpretentious, darkly comedic story of how it feels to exist in a community where local mythology and violent reality are pretty much the same thing, Downtown Owl is “a satisfying character study and strikes a perfect balance between the funny and the pro- found” (Publishers Weekly).

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:11 -0400)

A tale based on a deadly 1984 North Dakota blizzard follows the experiences of a small rural community devoted to its high-school athletics and its citizens' minor scandals, until a dangerous storm impacts the town in unsettling and powerful ways.

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