Friday, April 10, 2009

An embarrassingly funny debut

Downtown Owl: A Novel
by Chuck Klosterman
Edition: Audio CD

Downtown Owl is the debut novel of non-fiction writer and essayist Chuck Klosterman. As I read primarily fiction, I was unfamiliar with Klosterman’s prior work—which may have been a blessing. I came to this novel with no preconceived notions. And you know what? It’s the most delightful debut I’ve read all year. I loved it!

Downtown Owl is a character study, but rather than a close look at a single person, it’s a study of a small town. Specifically, a study of Owl, North Dakota from August 1983 to February 1984. It’s a close look at several citizens of Owl, such as Mitch, a high school student; Julia, a young teacher new to town; and Horace, an elderly widower and life-long resident. These characters and many others give slices of life that make up the whole of this insular community.

And, oh my God is it funny! I listened to this novel as an unabridged audiobook. As a rule, I am not a huge fan of audiobooks, but I give ‘em a whirl every now and again. This has to be the best produced audiobook I’ve ever listened to. It was narrated by six different readers—one of them the author himself—and their wonderful performances added immeasurably to my enjoyment of the book. The line readings were priceless. A line as simple as “I love to drink” is flat on the page, but in actress Lily Rabe’s hands had me in hysterics. On the bus. It was embarrassing. I could not keep from eruptions of laughter as I listened to this novel. Don’t think just because it takes place in a small town that this story is cute or quaint. No, it’s just very, very human.

As others have noted, this is not a plot-driven novel, but that doesn’t mean nothing happens. Small town life happens. The novel opens and closes with the same event, and yet I was still completely unprepared for the poignant ending. Klosterman has told this story with so much warmth and affection, I hope, I hope that he returns to Owl someday.
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