I decided to pick up Downtown Owl again. I originally read it much closer to its release in 2008 for two reasons. First, Klosterman is an author whom I enjoy, and because I want to include a review or an essay on each of his works on this blog I was surprised that I hadn’t reviewed Downtown Owl before. Considering that I read it before this blog started, that makes a ton of sense.
Second, I bought a new copy of the book to replace the copy I had lent a friend, whom I told to keep said copy. The new paperback edition that arrived at my house had a badge on it which said, “Soon to be a major motion picture,” which immediately moved Downtown Owl considerably further up my to-read list.
The fact that this wasn’t my first rodeo with the book only changed two things, and I believe they are the two things that impact most of us when we pick up a book or movie after a decade or longer. A) I knew how it would end; and B) I wasn’t sure how good my memory was of how that all truly transpired.
If you are a fan of Klosterman, it’s easy to recommend this book in its novel form, but if not, perhaps you may want to wait for the film. Downtown Owl is a book about one small town in North Dakota called Owl. It’s separated by character and time: in each chapter we are with one character, and the times and dates are in chronological order. Our main characters, the ones we spend the most time with are Mitch (a high school student), Julia (a 20-something high school teacher), and Horace (a local retiree). We also spend a chapter or two with Cubby and John, who are characters we meet through the main characters.
The truth is, this is a book where nothing really happens, until it suddenly does. If you have ever lived in a small town, you know exactly what I mean. This book is a slice of life and it hits on all cylinders. Having grown up in such a town myself, this book is immensely rich with details of a shared communal experience that all people who have spent time in small towns understand.
Not much happens, but there’s always something going on. Perhaps because this novel is set in 1983, it is dated by the lack of cellphones and computers, but that might be the best part about it. Mitch’s high school experience is very similar to that of everyone’s but it’s especially relevant to any of us who went through the education system before cell phones
Julia’s experience as a 20-something on her own in a new town with a new job seems almost universal, while Horace’s retired life is more or less what I imagine later retirement to be after you first stop working and find your new rhythm.
There exists, and perhaps it’s because of Klosterman’s style, an accessibility to the characters that I don’t often find in every novel I read. And having not much recollection for who I most related to in my first reading, I’m going to guess it was Julia since I was a 20-something when I first read this. I now find myself, more than a decade later, relating more to Horace. Still, each character gets their opportunity to shine, and you do enjoy your time with each of them.
There is a dark humor to this novel that bubbles just below the surface, but there are also some hard truths spoken by these characters that will make you think. It’s the kind of novel that you don’t want to read by yourself. It would almost be better to tackle it in a book club because there are so many fun discussions to be had about society and people.
If any of this sounds like something you’d have any interest in at all, get yourself a copy. As we all know, the book is often better than the movie.
I hope Klosterman’s involvement, presuming he has some, maintains the essence of this book as it makes its way to the big screen, but I can tell you that the heart of this book is the human experience, something that we often only embrace when we have to. It’s something that is intangible and yet its imperfections and rationalizations are what enhance that human experience, for both the characters and for the readers.