The lives of people in small towns can be fascinating. Take, for example, the citizens of Owl, N. Dak. Mr. Laidlaw, the football coach and teacher, can't keep his hands off the young students. Then there's Horace the old widower, fond of coffee, tomato soup, and solitude. A freshly graduated young teacher named Julia moves to town, to take on a new job. And Mitch, an apathetic, yet insightful, high school student lives there, who daydreams of his scornful teacher meeting a violent death. All these characters show up in Chuck Klosterman's tiny gem of a book, Downtown Owl, which doesn't present grand aspirations, great loves, or epic battles. Instead, it shows the simple, mality of abnormal lives.
Mitch hates Mr. Laidlaw with adolescent passion: hates his promiscuity with female students, the obtuse commitment of the Owl community to feigning ignorance of this and, most of all, Mr. Laidlaw's obsession with referring to him as 'Vanna'.
"When [he] heard that his high school football coach had gotten another teenage girl pregnant, he was forty bushels beyond bamboozled. [Mitch] could not understand what so many females saw in Mr. Laidlaw. He was inhumane, and also sarcastic. Whenever Mitch made the slightest mental error, Laidlaw would rhetorically scream 'Vanna? Vanna? Are you drowsy, Vanna? Wake up!..."
Mitch imagines how wonderful it would feel "to jam a screwdriver into Laidlaw's eye socket" and push him down a flight of metal stairs, "possibly toward a bear."
Julia's rural culture shock soon dissipates, and with some alcoholic assistance, she becomes a regular at the local bars. Being an unattached female, a rarity in Owl, she becomes the focus of the town's bachelors. Predictably, the only guy she is interested in is the mysteriously quiet Vance, who appears too withdrawn to give her attention. After many attempts to engage him, she draws him into her apartment, on the edge of town, where they talk about music over three drinks and a joint. To her (and my) surprise, he delivers a poignant aphorism which elucidates the central theme of Downtown Owl: "What I have come to realize is that totally different people are still basically the same... all people have all the same feelings, more or less. And feelings and thoughts are pretty much the same thing, more or less."
The character-driven storyline -- epitomized by short chapters focused on the central characters -- jump cuts across ancillary plots, yet somehow maintains a narrative continuity that dispalys Kosterman's skill. The main characters have independent story-lines, that minimally intersect. All of their tales are eventually united by a darkly profound conclusion, one presaged by, ironically enough, by the book's opening:
For all his wit, Klosterman writes words that pull you in. Just when you have settled into what you think is light reading, you'll find a comedic treasure or be forced to pause for introspection. That introspection leaves you contemplating a feeling of sameness: not a sameness that precludes individuality, but one that inspires compassion-- sameness in the basic struggles and desires of the human condition. Klosterman's characters are dealing with grief, shame, uncertainty and hope, each in their own manner and at their own pace. These feelings pervade all of their lives, just as they touch yours and mine.
Klosterman grew up near Wyndemere, N. Dak., a town suspiciously familiar to the fictional Owl. He's written four other books, including a collection of pop-culture essays, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. A current columnist for Spin magazine and regular contributor to Esquire, Klosterman's new work presents us with a multi-generational story of the minor woes that often occupy our thoughts, side-by-side with the major events that dominate our lives.
As the Seattle weather chills, I'm increasingly drawn to one of Mitch's observations: "Is there any feeling better than being in bed? What is going to happen in the course of my day that will be an improvement over lying on something very soft, underneath something very warm, wearing only underwear, doing absolutely nothing, all by myself?" Reading Downtown Owl from somewhere warm and cozy this winter sounds like pretty good advice.