Review

Downtown Owl

by Chuck Klosterman

Owl, North Dakota is a very small town. With less than 1,000
inhabitants, everyone seems to know everyone. It is 1983, and the
old men meet for coffee and nostalgia, and the young men meet for
beer, reliving football glory days. Just six months before a
devastating storm hits this sleepy burg, readers of Chuck
Klosterman's wonderful debut work of fiction are introduced to
three Owl citizens: Mitch, Julia and Horace. Despite the apparent
lack of excitement in Owl, these three, and their friends and
family, lead interesting and compelling lives, deftly rendered by
Klosterman.

Mitch Hrlicka is a high school football player in Owl. He is
smart and introspective, a bit more thoughtful than most of his
friends but still a typical teenage boy in many ways. He fantasizes
about killing his sleazy but intellectually provocative English
teacher (Mr. Laidlaw, who is also his football coach, has
impregnated at least two of his students and has assigned Orwell's
1984 to the entire school), and he fantasizes about the outcome of
a fight between the school’s two loosest canons. He disdains
popular music, and his bedroom is devoid of personal objects. He is
totally different from and yet completely the same as all the other
kids in Owl.

Julia Rabia just moved to Owl from the big city, accepting a
teaching position. At 23, she is not quite over her college party
days and finds herself drinking away her loneliness and mild
depression in Owl's many bars every night. Because she is new to
town and single, she is the most attractive woman to Owl's
unmarried men, and they all hope she will go out with them (to see
E.T. before the town's local movie theater is scheduled to
shut down). But it is the enigmatic Vance Druid, a famous football
has-been, who catches her eye. Their courting is both hilarious and
sad as they try to navigate a situation they seem incapable of
handling normally.

Horace Jones has lived in Owl all of his 73 years. He and his
cronies meet every afternoon for coffee, conversing about the
weather, local football and the wars they fought or didn't fight
in. A widower, Horace is content and serene, though he misses his
wife. He occupies his time with friends, the farm and nonfiction.
Horace though has two dark secrets he has shared with no one. He
represents the full life lived in Owl, while Mitch is the town's
young man full of potential and Julia is the outsider slowly
becoming a full member of the community.

DOWNTOWN OWL is a funny book and yet still quite serious,
focusing on identity and opportunity, survival (literal and
figurative) and propriety. While everyone in Owl is concerned with
appearances and maintaining the status quo, they all live rich,
complex and surprising inner lives. Klosterman proves and disproves
all the conventional wisdom about small towns and still manages to
give readers universal themes.

The characters in this well-written book are likable, quirky and
real without being two-dimensional. As witty and clever as DOWNTOWN
OWL is, however, it is also heartbreaking. Despite its emotional
heft, it is easy to devour in a long cold winter night or two,
hunkered down like the citizens of Owl themselves. It is best
though (for reasons that won't be mentioned here) not to read it on
a windy night.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 21, 2011

Downtown Owl
by Chuck Klosterman

  • Publication Date: June 23, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1416544194
  • ISBN-13: 9781416544197