Unpleasantville

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

DOWNTOWN OWL

By Chuck Klosterman

Scribner. 275 pp. $24

Cultural critic Chuck Klosterman's first book of nonfiction, Fargo Rock City, immersed us in the world of heavy metal music in 1980s rural North Dakota. Even those who didn't yearn to listen to the retro soundtrack or visit that remote locale couldn't deny how well Klosterman brought his subjects to life. Now, seven years later, he leads us back to North Dakota in this thoroughly engaging novel, Downtown Owl.

The title is a bit of a joke in that Owl has a population of only 850. But even without a booming downtown, it is a pleasure to visit. There's Mitch Hrlicka, a high school football player nicknamed "Vanna" (because his last name needs more vowels) who studies Orwell's 1984 and wonders if he inhabits a utopia or dystopia. Julia Rabia, a young teacher, is new to Owl and destined to discover the alarming popularity that descends upon a single woman in the middle of nowhere. And Horace Jones, who has lived in Owl for 73 years, knows better than anyone how to survive here.

Given such appealing locals and the way Owl itself emerges as a memorable character, it's tempting to compare this novel with Sherwood Anderson's classic portrait of small-town American life, Winesburg, Ohio. But no one in Winesburg listened to Ozzy Osbourne. And Klosterman is much funnier than Anderson.

The book's abundant humor and, it must be said, slight sense of plot are both displayed as Hrlicka cruises with five friends, "driving up and down the same six streets, drinking Rondo Citrus and chewing Skoal," talking about music, sports, life, loving and fighting. Amid their overlapping conversations, the narrator writes, "It was like an Altman film, although nobody inside the car had ever seen an Altman film (and four of them never would, mostly by choice.)"

Klosterman offers plenty of such deadpan observations, and his characters seem to take part in more meditation than action. Is it a blessing or a curse to live in a small town? Utopia or dystopia? The fates that befall the Owl-ers don't reveal definitive answers, though the trends look bleak. Still, by the end of this quirky tale, all we know for certain is that North Dakota weather can be very unforgiving, and nothing's more life-affirming than a strong cup of coffee with old friends at the local café. ·

-- Edward Schwarzschild is the author of "Responsible Men" and "The Family Diamond."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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