Everywhereville, North Dakota
Let’s get this out of the way: Like Chuck Klosterman, I grew up in small-town North Dakota in the 1970s and ‘80s, though -- crucial distinction here -- Klosterman was a farm kid, while I was known by such kids in my town of 1,500 or so as a “city slicker.” Like Klosterman, I attended the University of North Dakota and eventually came to work at a music magazine in New York City (Klosterman at Spin, me at Rolling Stone). Reading his first book, “Fargo Rock City” -- a very funny memoir embedded within a philosophical treatise on heavy metal and Midwestern cultural mores -- imparted not only a welcome and deep-seated shock of recognition but also an admiration for Klosterman’s unapologetic honesty in owning up to his devotion to an entire music-based weltanschauung long since ridiculed by the likes of Spin (or Rolling Stone) magazine editors.
His three other books and magazine pieces, which have mostly examined pop culture with deadpan and occasionally hilarious prejudice and insight, have spawned a frothy and deeply opinionated following. In terms of any public perception of North Dakota (beyond the movie “Fargo,” 99% of which is set in Minnesota), Klosterman has in some ways trumped landmark status, at least among expats. When people I meet for the first time ask me about the state, the questioning sometimes goes like this: “Isn’t that where Mt. Rushmore is?” (No; that’s South Dakota.) “What about the Black Hills?” (Ditto.) “Wait -- isn’t that writer Chuck Klosterman from North Dakota?”
Klosterman’s new book, “Downtown Owl,” is his first novel. Owl, the fictional town in which it’s set, is not so much wholly invented as it is a virtual composite of all small towns in North Dakota: One grocery store, a hardware store, a Chevy dealership, two gas stations, seven bars, a movie theater on the verge of extinction and a thriving bowling alley; teenagers there are “maddeningly polite and overwhelmingly blond”; the local school has “no system in place for disciplinary detention, and none was needed.” Check, check and check. Lots of people spend lots of time drinking, or playing dice to determine who pays for their daily 3 p.m. kaffeeklatsch; a local bartender is ridiculed and ostracized by the men of the town not because he’s a ne’er-do-well rich kid, nor due to his insulting his customers and sexually harassing the underage waitresses he hires -- it’s the fact that the bartender keeps his black Lab inside his apartment: “What kind of man treats his dog like a wife?”
When Julia Rabia moves from Madison, Wis., to take a job as a history teacher in Owl’s high school, the principal gives her a helpful summary of some local history she’ll need to teach the “Our State” class -- “Teddy Roosevelt, Angie Dickinson, lignite coal, that sort of thing” -- as well as a primer on civic stability: “People always say that nothing changes in a small town, but -- whenever they say that -- they usually mean that nothing changes figuratively. The truth is that nothing changes literally: It’s always all the same people, doing all the same things.”
Mitch and Horace know this already; like most everybody else, they’ve lived there all their lives. Mitch is a high school junior struggling to make sense of his classmates, his teachers and his terrible quarterbacking on the football team; Horace is a senior citizen struggling to come to terms with his being alone, his dice partners, the bartender with the black Lab and the way the football team just isn’t as good as it was back in the day. It being wintertime, Horace wears “an Elmer Fudd hat, leather gloves, a wool scarf, a winter jacket, denim overalls, a sweater, a turtleneck, a flannel shirt, an undershirt, long johns, Red Wing work boots, and two pairs of socks. ‘It’s not so cold today,’ he thought. ‘The TV said it would be colder.’ ”
The most vivid character in Klosterman’s book, though, isn’t a person: It’s the town of Owl in all its good-natured sameness, as well as in its overly affable Big Brother-like ability to watch and police its own. When Mitch spells out his issues with the Orwell book his class was assigned, it’s an apt summary of the small-bore, lonesome-country ethos: “Everyone knew everything. So how was ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ a dystopia? It seemed ordinary. What was so unusual about everyone knowing all the same things?”
Klosterman on Owl, however, is not William Kennedy on Albany nor Joyce on Dublin. Too many of the characters here are nearly interchangeable, and while the state’s small towns are hardly conducive to high drama, literary or otherwise -- North Dakota’s most apt celebrity is not Angie Dickinson (who moved with her family to Burbank when she was 11) but Lawrence Welk -- I kept waiting for some sort of plot to emerge. Even without that, I yearned for some sort of conclusion, or resolution, or something, however open-ended or specious. Instead, the book simply ends.
As to the question of whether “Downtown Owl” is or is not the Great North Dakotan Novel, one proviso: Any work of fiction set in the state that doesn’t contain the expression “Uff da” -- a Norwegian phrase that’s a sort of landlocked “aloha,” a stand-in for everything from “Great!” to “Sorry to hear about that” that is the state’s true motto -- is automatically disqualified. Such an omission makes about as much sense as keeping a black Lab inside your apartment.
Corey Seymour is a senior editor at Men’s Vogue and the co-author, with Jann Wenner, of “Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson.”