Saturday, March 28, 2020

Small Town? Gen X? Social Distancing? Read "Downtown Owl"

"Its all so wonky: I live in a town where everybody supposedly knows everyone else, yet I've never spoken to half the people who supposedly know everything about me. I see them on the street, but don't even know their names. How is living in Owl any different from living in Hong Kong or Mexico City or Prague? Is every place essentially identical?"

So ponders Julia, a young teacher from Wisconsin who has transplanted herself to the the small town of Owl, North Dakota, after graduating from U of W and teaching a semester in the city of Chicago. Julia is one of the primary characters in pop culture journalist Chuck Klosterman's novel Downtown Owl, which reads as a series of vignettes about life in Owl over several months in 1983. Other narratives come in the thoughts of Mitch Hrlicka, a third-string quarterback who doesn't like rock music or his sleazy football coach, and Horace Jones, a seventy-ish widower who spends most of his days drinking coffee and chatting with his "colleagues" at the cafe and pondering American history. The lives of these characters are intertwined in general ways as the story moves toward a culminating event in an epic blizzard, but the tenor and appeal of the novel comes in Klosterman's pop journalist-infused psychological study of people of a certain time and place.

Something about this quirky little book really appealed to me, even despite some critics' jabs at the the style and plodding along of the stories, peppered with pop culture references that are certainly a trademark of the author but can at times seem forced or out of place for the setting and theme. For fans of Klosterman's non-fiction, these details aren't a problem, and for people of a certain time and place, like the Gen X youth who came of age in Midwestern towns in the 1980s. Perhaps it is that hovering bit of nostalgia that I'm always aware of, especially after turning fifty. But, as we're all hunkered down and social distancing lately, I'm glad I ran across this book and checked it out of my high school library before we left for spring break. While I'd read CK's non-fiction for years, I had never bothered to pick up Downtown Owl, and I was rather surprised to see it in a contemporary high school library. It was an enjoyable read, one which had me nodding often in amusement and occasionally in painful recognition or poignant recollection.

Nice job, Chuck.

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