Klosterman’s non-fiction is great, as so many of his fans know, but he has stuck with the same authorial voice for his first attempt at a novel, and it doesn’t really work. It doesn’t work, but still the novel manages to entertain. It grabs you, though you never get sucked in enough to ignore the clunky writing.
The characters in Downtown Owl are all relatively flat, but that’s on purpose, and it kind of endears you to them. Kind of. The story floats along, following three people in the typical format of all stories that follow a set of strangers whose stories become slowly intertwined. But in this case, strangely, they don’t really become connected. The three people, all residents of Owl, North Dakota but strangers to one another, never really cross paths until the final chapter, and even then, they don’t meet each other; they just meet similar fates.
The way I see it, the problem with the novel isn’t in plot or characters. Unfortunately, it’s in the writing (which is a shame because one common criticism of some big classics is that the plot or characters are boring, but the outstanding writing saves the book; here it’s the opposite). And the writing isn’t bad, it’s just bland, and it’s because Klosterman has not shifted his essayist’s voice at all for the new venue of fiction.
There are two distinct categories of mistakes Klosterman makes in the book repeatedly. They are errors nonfictiony, opiniony, gimmicky self-referential writing that is in the style of an album review.
First is the issue of writing that is cutesy/gimmicky. It happens when Klosterman decides it’ll be fun to pick a colloquialism and weave it throughout a paragraph. It’s a recurring issue. Here’s one spot: “And this (of course) made him seem like the only attractive man in the entire town. And that (of course) is a romantic cliché, which (of course) only serves to illustrate Julia’s damaged self-perception. It was all (of course) too predictable to believe.” Of course, this is not fabulous writing. The reader tires of that parenthetical quickly. Here’s a passage that essentially uses the same trick, simply with a new phrase: “Edgar Camaro was Lucifer. Or at least an idiot. Or at least he was when he rolled dice, or at least that’s how it seemed to Horace.” Come on, Chuck. This isn’t too imaginative. It’s not cute, either.
Finally, here is the granddaddy of all gimmicky passages from Downtown Owl. I challenge anyone to say that the below is a smooth or artful literary technique (but it’s meant to be funny, you might counter; I’d say the joke is beaten into the ground too much to be funny by the end).
“You are going to pay for what you did,” the brother (allegedly) said. “Serpico is gonna make you bleed, fuckwad.” Upon that (alleged) declaration, the brother released Serpico’s leash. The hound jumped for the jugular, which was his (alleged) nature. But Serpico didn’t make it. Cubby (allegedly) caught the dog by the throat, and smashed its snout into the pavement. He (allegedly) squeezed its windpipe with his left hand; he (allegedly) hit Serpico until Serpico (allegedly) stopping twitching.
The second flawed element here is writing that contains knowing references or allusions. They are almost always music-related or film-related, and they are all relatively obscure and old, as though Klosterman is trying to impress. Again, it feels as though he’s forgotten it’s a novel, and is writing an album review for Spin. Here’s one such line: “There were multiple conversations happening at the same time; 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).” The author is directly addressing the reader. Some might like this strategy; I don’t. If the characters haven’t seen an Altman movie, then Altman movies shouldn’t be mentioned.
Finally, there is one other major section of poor writing, and it’s when Klosterman spends two pages giving a category of townies who have earned nicknames, and providing a history of the origin of these nicknames. It’s exhausting, and most of the characters do not appear again anyway. They are barflies, and we don’t need the info. It’s like some mock attempt at a Homeric “Catalogue of heroes.” Here’s one of ten bios provided: Here’s a couple of the ten bios provided: “Derrick Decker. He was ‘Bull Calf.’ [because when he once pulled his groin he moaned like a baby bull, though how people in town knew what a baby bull sounded like is beyond me]… Brian Pintar. He was known as ‘the Drelf,’ which was an abbreviation for the Drunken Elf.” Gee, okay.
There is, however, good writing here. In small pieces. Occasionally, Klosterman can really turn a phrase. These bits are wonderful, but rare hits among a collection of misses. Phrases like: “The air was damp wool,” (so good, right?) and, when a kid thinks about his football coach: “He was an upright Gila monster wearing a polo shirt.” That’s dead on, imaginative, solid writing.
I also love this moment, when one of the main three, Julia, daydreams a scene that could maybe (but never does) occur between her and a guy she likes:
“We need to buy a bigger bed,” he would suggest sardonically, and they would lie on the mattress and laugh and laugh.
That’s a terrific image, and very plausible fiction because, indeed, it’s just the sort of moment someone with a crush would create and enjoy picturing. Here’s one more cogent moment of realistic character psychology: Mitch is asleep, in that dream world, that wonderful, cozy state of sleep, but then his alarm goes off for school, and Klosterman writes, “And then he was not in space. He was in the world, and it existed.” Exactly.
So there are problems, deep flaws with Klosterman’s fiction. And for a second novel he’ll have to work a lot harder to adapt his style for fiction. He can’t just do the same thing he does in his columns for Esquire, clearly. That being said, somehow, inexplicably, it’s a nice read. It doesn’t pull any punches with the ending, either—it’s actually kind of brutal. But it works, and you’ll enjoy reading it, if you can stay calm and overlook the winking in-jokes about obscure 80s music. So, with major reservations, I think I actually would recommend it.
I must add that I love the cover art. I’m talking about the hardcover version, shown here, with the eye holes and quiet street scene of a small town. The paperback version is more busy, with a jukebox and eighties-style font, and I don’t like it as much.