Tuesday, December 22, 2009

#10: Downtown Owl

OK, I'll confess: I'm scared of books by men.

Yes, I realize I shiver in my boots before the literary output of half of the known world. Yes, I understand that my prejudice limits my reading list largely to this century and the last, given that -with a few notable exceptions- pre-20th-century writing was the province of men. And, OK, I'll admit I've read some awesome books by men. I think Rabbit Run is a masterpiece, and I'll read pretty much anything Michael Chabon writes.

Still, I approach the work of male authors -especially young male authors- with trepidation. Men can be so...maximalist. Many a male author likes to set his hunting cap for the biggest game he can think of -the BIGGEST IDEAS; the MOST ENCOMPASSING THEMES; life, the universe, and EVERYTHING- and then proceed to hound it to death over the frozen tundra of 900 swooping, posturing, chest-thumping pages. It's like the novel is his territory and he's going to make sure he pees all over it.

(David Foster Wallace, I'm looking at you.)

I am not a maximalist. I like small, densely drawn worlds in which nothing much happens yet everything changes. It just so happens that most of the people who inhabit these worlds, who jolt them to life with words, are women.

Which is why I selected Chuck Klosterman's Downtown Owl for My Year of Reading Dangerously. Klosterman is a man. He is not an old man. And his biography is less than reassuring: He's worked for Esquire, for starters, and the title of his previous novel, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, smacked of urine in print.

Fortunately, I was (mostly) wrong. Downtown Owl, a portrait of a fictional North Dakota town on the eve of a blizzard, is profoundly concerned with the small. Small lives, small town, small time. Klosterman is a detail man: the book is a less a narrative than a galaxy of specificities. These are at the very least entertaining and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny:

"John S. Laidlaw was a football coach, a pheasant hunter, a two-pack-a-day smoker, a notorious cheapskate, a deeply closeted atheist, and an outspoken libertarian. But he was also an English teacher, and -were it not for his preoccupation with convincing female students to have intercourse with him inside his powder blue Caprice Classic- he might have been among the best educators in the entire state of North Dakota. He was certainly the finest teacher in Owl, even when you factored in the emotional cruelty and the statutory raping."

If I'd been smart, I would have guessed Klosterman's obsession with detail from the exactingly detailed title: Downtown Owl, with it's hidden howl (ow ow ow) and its double connotation of town square and down-and-out.

Sometimes, Klosterman's cataloguing of the very small gets in the way of his unfolding narrative, as when all dialogue, in its specific hilarity, begins to sound the same. Klosterman writes largely from the perspective of three Owl residents: an indifferent football player named Mitch; Julia, who moves to Owl to teach history and finds herself the center of male attention purely by dint of being female and alive; and Horace, one of the coffee-swilling oldsters at the cafe. A few extra voices are thrown in, but as all the voices are distinguishably Klosterman's, it doesn't much matter.

Still, Owl is a joyful, nosy, and very occasionally lovely little book. "All great books seem boring until you've finished reading them," Laidlaw tells his students. Downtown Owl is not a great book. It's far too engrossing for that.


Allan said...

Ooh, had to skip reading this, as my friend just yesterday handed me this book. Glad to hear that you like it, too. Something to look forward to after my current great book ;)

wombat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
wombat said...

Anne, I just did an informal survey of the "things you're grateful for" list, and you mention cheese or a specifically cheese product 13 times. Also, barfing 3 times.

p.s. I deleted the first comment because I hate being that guy who forgets to put an apostrophe where there should be one!

Anne said...

Allan: It's good! Enjoy! Though a little nasty.
Janey: Alarming, but not unexpected. Barfing and cheese are both very salient phenomena. Maybe I need to try cheese in different languages. Queso! Fromage frais!