"Downtown Owl" an enjoyable, forgettable read

His novel has the same sharp qualities as his social criticism.
'Downtown Owl' proves that Chuck Klosterman can make anything funny - even small-town North Dakota. Courtesy of Scribner

 Chuck Klosterman definitively claims The Beatles are the greatest band of all time. Admittedly, this is one of the least controversial statements you will read today. But Klosterman also cites The Beatles as ushering in the concept of pop music as a mass commodity. This makes sense knowing what we know about Klosterman. He is a cultural critic. And The Beatles were the epitome of a cultural movement. Also, he unabashedly loves pop music. And The Beatles wrote fantastic pop songs. But all these things have always pointed to the conclusion that The Beatles are the most important band of all time, not the best, largely because of this same concept of music as a mass commodity.

The Beatles pandemonium didn't start because they were Jeff Mangum. Don't get me wrong, their early stuff was good, but "I Want To Hold Your Hand" doesn't really need to be held under a microscope to seek out its meaning. It was what it was. Sure, songs like "I Am The Walrus" have been endlessly debated, and they wrote multi-layered pieces like "Tomorrow Never Knows" (which Klosterman coincidentally said, in "Killing Yourself To Live," would be his choice of Beatles song to kill himself to if he knew he could bleed to death in 2:56). But their sound is largely represented by three-minute simplistic pop songs that, much like Klosterman himself, have the ability to be euphorically enjoyable for those brief moments you're experiencing them, but don't require much further consideration.

This seemed logical for Klosterman's first few works. "Fargo Rock City" claimed to be a North Dakota Heavy Metal Odyssey and the book jacket of his breakthrough "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs" deemed it a low culture manifesto. He made a living out of making astute cultural observations that were simultaneously so simply logical you felt like you had already thought of something very close to that and so meticulously clever you knew you hadn't.

This same aptitude for detail is on full display in his first foray into fiction, "Downtown Owl," and the concept transitions impressively well. The novel is a basic look at small-town North Dakota life through the eyes of an old man, a young female teacher and a third-string high school quarterback. At times, it can feel like Klosterman got caught up in these details and observations, but even then they work well enough that they are partially charming.

For example, when describing six high school boys talking in a car, Klosterman writes, "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)." This is certainly not a necessary detail, as the relevance of "Short Cuts" to small-town North Dakota is minimal at best. But details like these make Klosterman's writing - the details that say nothing and everything all at once, or some bullshit sentiment like that.

But outside of these details and the three-minute pop songs of each of the three revolving narrators, there isn't a great deal to take away from "Owl." The characters are strong, the atmosphere seems genuine and well done, and the fact that Klosterman's teenage protagonist "doesn't enjoy music" feels nearly Earth-shattering. The book was genuinely funny and compelling and painlessly enjoyable, but when the novel ends with the phrase "It was the greatest godamn night of his life," the euphoria wears off and you're already putting "I Want To Hold Your Hand" on your iPod and then not really thinking about anything at all in three minutes.

 

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