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A Hipster’s Homily

By John Murphy

Posted 11/12/08 at 12:01 AM

Chuck Klosterman acquits himself well with his first novel, Downtown Owl. He’s better known as a wiseass essayist on movies, video games, heavy-metal music and pop culture miscellany for publications like Esquire, Spin, and The Guardian.

An ominous news clipping prefaces Downtown Owl, reporting on a vicious blizzard that claimed the lives of eleven people in North Dakota’s Red River Valley in February of 1984. The first chapter backtracks to August of the year before, as the high school football practice is underway. We’re in Owl, North Dakota, a town of around eight-hundred souls, good and bad. Everyone knows everyone else, for better and worse, but how well? Every soul is a mystery to another. An average high school kid, a twenty-something teacher, and a seventy-three year old widower go about their daily lives, following long-established routines. The news clipping casts a pall of dread over the otherwise prosaic proceedings as we come to care and appreciate this intimate cast of small-town characters, in all their human failings and idiosyncrasies, and can’t help but wonder which will be numbered among the eleven.

Klosterman has an essayist’s eye for telling details and witty, character-revealing anecdotes. He also has an essayist’s weakness for discursive rambling and an intrusive point-of-view, as when he describes the local parish priest: “His homilies were rhetorical interrogations of society as a whole, and his vocal style employed the soft-loud-soft pattern that would eventually be perfected by rock bands like the Pixies.” Klosterman can’t resist drawing a clever comparison only he would think of in a story that predates the Pixies, and in a place where the Pixies would never have been a common cultural reference anyway. Those self-conscious moment are rarer than one would expect, however, given the insistent uniqueness of Klosterman’s non-fiction voice.

Another self-conscious moment is when a group of high schoolers are in a car. “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.” Though distracting, the observation is helpful. Downtown Owl is like Robert Altman’s Short Cuts on a minor scale: a group of loosely strung together stories in a specific time and place culminating in a natural disaster. Not much happens in Downtown Owl until the dramatic last chapter, when Klosterman (disguised as God disguised as Nature) metes out indiscriminate punishment to Owl’s citizens. Perhaps it’s a cruel fate to visit on his characters, not to mention a somewhat arbitrary device, but it succeeds thematically: we none of us know ourselves fully until tested: “It’s hard being wrong about what you think you can do, and it’s hard being wrong about who you are…Yet this is how it goes. Always.”

It’s a humbling fact, and a healthy reminder to appreciate the quotidian as a vessel of grace and abundance. Not a bad lesson from a wiseass.