Book review: ‘Downtown Owl’

It’s not often you meet someone from North Dakota.

With no big cities, and plenty of vast, flat farmland laden with snow much of the year, the state has just 757,000 residents.

Native son Chuck Klosterman knows this terrain well.

It’s the setting for his offbeat novel, “Downtown Owl”, a story of misfits and outcasts set in a tiny community on the Dakota plains in the 1980s.

The book reminded me of Sherwood Anderson’s classic, “Winesburg, Ohio” about grotesques living out their lonely, misunderstood, and often repressed lives in a Midwestern town. But while Anderson’s 1919 story was a humorless one, Klosterman has used the spare, drab lives of his characters to draw comedy.

Among the principal characters is Julia Rabia, a young woman fresh out of a Wisconsin college who finds herself less than eager to launch a teaching career in this desolate town.

Her initial meeting with the principal is among the book’s best scenes.

The reader gets a good sense of someone already unhappy with her job selection, dreading the school year awaiting her, despite the less-than encouraging words from the principal who assures her the school and community are great places.

She’s sure she has nothing here to make her life bearable, that is, until she makes friends with a wise-cracking teaching colleague and her “boyfriend” who is not so much a romantic interest as a drinking partner.

And so, this trio of barroom buddies spend their evenings at any one of the many watering holes dotting the community.

Drinking is the favorite pastime of many of the characters that surface in this story.

The men of the town gather in the bars to spend the long evenings talking about topics that often include farming and football.

Indeed, sports, but principally football, cast a considerable shadow over the lives of some of these characters. There’s the teacher and high school football coach, who has had affairs with female students over his career.

One of his players, Mitch Hrlicka, a less than talented backup quarterback, the recipient of his taunts on the football field and in the classroom, can’t fathom how the coach has escaped justice all these years. He harbors fantasies about killing him.

Vance Druid is a former player and the idol of many of the townsfolk for reasons that are mysterious to Julia. She finds this laconic bar fly, to whom many of the young men are drawn, among the most fascinating male figures in the town.

Determined to find out more about him, to perhaps even date him, she often chats him up in any of the many barrooms where she drinks with her friends on their evenings out on the town. But Vance is distant, guarded. Is he hiding something?

Klosterman has mixed up an interesting cocktail of oddball personalities, all searching for something, perhaps a connection, while they drown in the turmoil of their own inner lives in this provincial town on the plains.

Downtown Owl is more a series of character studies than anything else that seem to have something to say about the human condition.

Never mind the less-than satisfying climax to this book.

Klosterman has written a sad, funny and entertaining book about ordinary, unremarkable people. And that’s no easy trick.