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Downtown Owl: A Novel

Downtown Owl: A Novel

3.8 55
by Chuck Klosterman

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New York Times Bestselling Author Chuck Klosterman's First Novel

Somewhere in North Dakota, there is a town called Owl that isn't there. Disco is over, but punk never happened. They don't have cable. They don't really have pop culture, unless you count grain prices and alcoholism. People work hard and then they die. They hate


New York Times Bestselling Author Chuck Klosterman's First Novel

Somewhere in North Dakota, there is a town called Owl that isn't there. Disco is over, but punk never happened. They don't have cable. They don't really have pop culture, unless you count grain prices and alcoholism. People work hard and then they die. They hate the government and impregnate teenage girls. But that's not nearly as awful as it sounds; in fact, sometimes it's perfect.

Mitch Hrlicka lives in Owl. He plays high school football and worries about his weirdness, or lack thereof. Julia Rabia just moved to Owl. She gets free booze and falls in love with a self-loathing bison farmer who listens to Goats Head Soup. Horace Jones has resided in Owl for seventy-three years. He consumes a lot of coffee, thinks about his dead wife, and understands the truth. They all know each other completely, except that they've never met.

Like a colder, Reagan-era version of The Last Picture Show fused with Friday Night Lights, Chuck Klosterman's Downtown Owl is the unpretentious, darkly comedic story of how it feels to exist in a community where rural mythology and violent reality are pretty much the same thing. Loaded with detail and unified by a (very real) blizzard, it's technically about certain people in a certain place at a certain time...but it's really about a problem. And the problem is this: What does it mean to be a normal person? And there is no answer. But in Downtown Owl, what matters more is how you ask the question.

Editorial Reviews

Edward Schwarzschild
[Klosterman] leads us back to North Dakota in this thoroughly engaging novel…Given such appealing locals and the way Owl itself emerges as a memorable character, it's tempting to compare this novel with Sherwood Anderson's classic portrait of small-town American life, Winesburg, Ohio. But no one in Winesburg listened to Ozzy Osbourne. And Klosterman is much funnier than Anderson.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Four books of nonfiction (Fargo Rock City; Klosterman IV; etc.) and a steady magazine presence have established Klosterman as a pop culture writer known for his air-quotes wit. There's plenty of that sensibility in his first novel, and fans and detractors alike may be pleasantly surprised to find Klosterman delving beneath the quirky surfaces of Owl, N. Dak., the "overtly idyllic" but "paradoxically menacing" town that provides a perfect backdrop for the author's sense of humor. (The time in which the novel takes place-1983, an era of Def Leppard and feathered hair-tickles the author's love of the vapid.) The book shifts perspective among three Owl residents: Mitch, a smart teenager who's "not clutch" on the football field or with girls; Julia, a teacher fresh out of college and discovering an affinity for booze and beaus; and Horace, a widower whose life revolves around coffee and bull sessions. Though no single narrative line binds the three-the event that ultimately unites them is a creaking deus ex machina-Klosterman creates a satisfying character study and strikes a perfect balance between the funny and the profound. (Sept.)

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Library Journal

Welcome to Owl, ND, circa 1984, a town of some 800-plus souls located somewhere between Winesburg, OH, and Twin Peaks, WA. Folks feel rooted here. Most of us know one another so well, we're sort of like a big family. Here, in Owl, dating involves a lot of desperation, and serious drinking is still considered a productive avocation. Of course, the high school, which sometimes attracts teachers who've been educated abroad, in places like Minot or even St. Paul, is a big deal: the time the Owl Lobos got covered on the national news ranks right up there with Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Angie Dickinson in the North Dakota pantheon. Oh, and there's also that "Gordon Kahl incident," in which a protestor killed two federal marshals over a tax dispute-but we figure every town has its problems. We're not so much bitter, really, as dazed and confused. Klosterman (Fargo Rock City), who has previously written mainly about bands with names like OutKast, devotes his first novel to us. You'll want to check it out from your local public library. Owl's may be not so different from where you live. [See Prepub Alert, LJ5/1/08.]
—Bob Lunn

Kirkus Reviews
A debut novel that works better as cultural criticism than it does as fiction. Popular journalist Klosterman built his reputation with a musical memoir (Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota, 2001) that established him as the anti-rock-critic rock critic, a writer who could explain why things that rock critics dismiss as dumb are really significant and things that rock critics celebrate are often dumb. For his first novel, he returns to his native North Dakota, while making sure to assert: "This story is a non-autobiographical work of fiction." It also isn't much of a story, encompassing as it does the narrative perspectives of three characters who are more generic than fully fleshed and whose interaction with each other is minimal. Mitch is a regular guy and underappreciated football player (by his coach, who has a history of impregnating students), who can't really understand the appeal of some of the music his friends have started to embrace (Van Halen, ZZ Top, Def Leppard). Julia is the new history teacher who becomes the unlikely femme fatale in a small town that doesn't attract many young, single females. Horace is an old guy who drinks coffee and swaps gossip with other old guys at the coffee shop in what the title ironically terms "downtown Owl." The short chapters are chronologically dated from late summer 1983 until the climactic blizzard of winter 1984. There is some exegesis of the George Orwell novel and the Van Halen album that both take their title from the latter year. Klosterman has a feel for how kids find fun, meaning and purpose (or don't) in small-town Dakota, but the fact that the movie theater is closing invites unfortunate comparisons withLarry McMurtry's far superior The Last Picture Show. This will likely find a wider readership with those who love Klosterman (from his nonfiction books and magazine work for Esquire, ESPN, Spin et al.) than those who love novels. Agent: Daniel Greenberg/Levine Greenberg Literary Agency

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August 15, 1983


When Mitch Hrlicka heard that his high school football coach had gotten another teenage girl pregnant, he was forty bushels beyond bamboozled. He could not understand what so many females saw in Mr. Laidlaw. He was inhumane, and also sarcastic. Whenever Mitch made the slightest mental error, Laidlaw would rhetorically scream, "Vanna? Vanna? Are you drowsy, Vanna? Wake up! You can sleep when you are dead, Vanna!" Mr. Laidlaw seemed unnaturally proud that he had nicknamed Mitch "Vanna White" last winter, solely based on one semifunny joke about how the surname "Hrlicka" needed more vowels. Mitch did not mind when other kids called him Vanna, because almost everyone he knew had a nickname; as far as he could tell, there was nothing remotely humiliating about being called "Vanna," assuming everyone understood that the name had been assigned arbitrarily. It symbolized nothing. But Mitch hated when John Laidlaw called him "Vanna," because Laidlaw assumed it was humiliating. And that, clearly, was his goal.

Christ, it was humid. When Mitch and his teenage associates had practiced that morning at 7:30 a.m., it was almost cool; the ground had been wet with dew and the clouds hovered fourteen feet off the ground. But now -- eleven hours later -- the sun was burning and falling like the Hindenburg. The air was damp wool. Mitch limped toward the practice field for the evening's upcoming death session; he could already feel sweat forming on his back and above his nose and under his crotch. His quadriceps stored enough lactic acid to turn a triceratops into limestone. "God damn," he thought. "Why do I want this?" In two days the team would begin practicing in full pads. It would feel like being wrapped in cellophane while hauling bricks in a backpack. "God damn," he thought again. "This must be what it's like to live in Africa." Football was not designed for the summer, even if Herschel Walker believed otherwise.

When Mitch made it to the field, the other two Owl quarterbacks were already there, facing each other twelve yards apart, each standing next to a freshman. They were playing catch, but not directly; one QB would rifle the ball to the opposite freshman, who would (in theory) catch it and immediately flip it over to the second QB who was waiting at his side. The other quarterback would then throw the ball back to the other freshman, and the process would continue. This was how NFL quarterbacks warmed up on NFL sidelines. The process would have looked impressive to most objective onlookers, except for the fact that both freshman receivers dropped 30 percent of the passes that struck them in the hands. This detracted from the fake professionalism.

Mitch had no one to throw to, so he served as the holder while the kickers practiced field goals. This duty required him to crouch on one knee and remain motionless, which (of course) is not an ideal way to get one's throwing arm loose and relaxed. Which (of course) did not really matter, since Coach Laidlaw did not view Mitch's attempts at quarterbacking with any degree of seriousness. Mitch was not clutch. Nobody said this, but everybody knew. It was the biggest problem in his life.

At 7:01, John Laidlaw blew into a steel whistle and instructed everyone to bring it in. They did so posthaste.

"Okay," Laidlaw began. "This is the situation. The situation is this: We will not waste any light tonight, because we have a beautiful evening with not many mosquitoes and a first-class opportunity to start implementing some of the offense. I realize this is only the fourth practice, but we're already way behind on everything. It's obvious that most of you didn't put five goddamn minutes into thinking about football all goddamn summer, so now we're all behind. And I don't like being behind. I've never been a follower. I'm not that kind of person. Maybe you are, but I am not.

"Classes start in two weeks. Our first game is in three weeks. We need to have the entire offense ready by the day we begin classes, and we need to have all of the defensive sets memorized before we begin classes. And right now, I must be honest: I don't even know who the hell is going to play for us. So this is the situation. The situation is this: Right now, everybody here is equally useless. This is going to be an important, crucial, important, critical, important two weeks for everyone here, and it's going to be a real kick in the face to any of you who still want to be home watching The Price Is Right. And I know there's going to be a lot of people in this town talking about a lot of bull crap that doesn't have anything to do with football, and you're going to hear about certain things that happened or didn't happen or that supposedly happened or that supposedly allegedly didn't happen to somebody that probably doesn't even exist. These are what we call distractions. These distractions will come from all the people who don't want you to think about Owl Lobo football. So if I hear anyone on this team perpetuating those kinds of bullshit stories, everyone is going to pay for those distractions. Everyone. Because we are here to think about Owl Lobo football. And if you are not thinking exclusively -- exclusively -- about Owl Lobo football, go home and turn on The Price Is Right. Try to win yourself a washing machine."

It remains unclear why John Laidlaw carried such a specific, all-encompassing hatred for viewers of The Price Is Right. No one will ever know why this was. Almost as confusing was the explanation as to why Owl High School was nicknamed the Lobos, particularly since they had been the Owl Owls up until 1964. During the summer of '64, the citizens of Owl suddenly concluded that being called the Owl Owls was somewhat embarrassing, urging the school board to change the nickname to something "less repetitive." This proposal was deeply polarizing to much of the community. The motion didn't pass until the third vote. And because most of the existing Owl High School athletic gear still featured its long-standing logo of a feathered wing, it was decided that the new nickname should remain ornithological. As such, the program was known as the Owl Eagles for all of the 1964-1965 school year. Contrary to community hopes, this change dramatically increased the degree to which its sports teams were mocked by opposing schools. During the especially oppressive summer of 1969, they decided to change the nickname again, this time becoming the Owl High Screaming Satans. (New uniforms were immediately purchased.) Two games into the '69 football season, the local Lutheran and Methodist churches jointly petitioned the school board, arguing that the nickname "Satan" glorified the occult and needed to be changed on religious grounds; oddly (or perhaps predictably), the local Catholic church responded by aggressively supporting the new moniker, thereby initiating a bitter feud among the various congregations. (This was punctuated by a now infamous street fight that involved the punching of a horse.) When the Lutheran minister ultimately decreed that all Protestant athletes would have to quit all extracurricular activities if the name "Satan" remained in place, the school was forced to change nicknames midseason. Nobody knew how to handle this unprecedented turn of events. Eventually, one of the cheerleaders noticed that the existing satanic logo actually resembled an angry humanoid wolf, a realization that seemed brilliant at the time. (The cheerleader, Janelle Fluto, is now a lesbian living in Thunder Bay, Ontario.) The Screaming Satans subsequently became the Screaming Lobos, a name that was edited down to Lobos upon the recognition that wolves do not scream. This nickname still causes mild confusion, as strangers sometimes assume the existence of a mythological creature called the "Owl Lobo," which would (indeed) be a terrifying (and potentially winged) carnivore hailing from western Mexico. But -- nonetheless, and more importantly -- there has not been any major community controversy since the late sixties. Things have been perfect ever since, if by "perfect" you mean "exactly the same."

Mitch and the rest of the Lobos clapped their hands simultaneously and started to jog one lap around the practice field, ostensibly preparing to perform a variety of calisthenics while thinking exclusively about Owl Lobo football and not fantasizing about The Price Is Right. But such a goal was always impossible. It was still summer. As Mitch loped along the sidelines, his mind drifted to other subjects, most notably a) Gordon Kahl, b) the Georgetown Hoyas, c) how John Laidlaw managed to seduce and impregnate Tina McAndrew, and d) how awful it must feel to be John Laidlaw's wife.

Copyright © 2008 by Chuck Klosterman

Meet the Author

Chuck Klosterman is the New York Times bestselling author of seven previous books, including Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs; Eating the Dinosaur; Killing Yourself to Live; and The Visible Man. His debut book, Fargo Rock City, was the winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award. He has written for GQ, Esquire, Spin, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Believer, and The Onion A.V. Club. He currently serves as “The Ethicist” for the New York Times Magazine and writes about sports and popular culture for ESPN.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
June 5, 1972
Place of Birth:
Wyndmere, North Dakota
Degree in Journalism, University of North Dakota, 1994

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Downtown Owl 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 55 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you are looking for a novel with a beginning,a middle and an end that leaves you feeling your main characters have resolved a problem or grown in the course of the story's events, then this book is not for you. Simply put, this is three separate slice-of-life stories running concurrently about three individuals and an interesting cast of secondary characters who all happen to live in a very small town called Owl, North Dakota. It offers an inside glimpse of how narrow life can be in a small town when some little thing you said or did at one insignificant moment in your life becomes the standard by which you are defined for the rest of it. The novel is hilarious and sad, pointed and pointless--and something I could not put down. Interestingly, everyone seems to know everything about everyone in Owl, but only superficially. The problem is that superficial knowledge is all that matters in Owl. What I was left with at the end was the question, and the question is this: Is it better to be defined and remembered (probably incorrectly) for one single incident in your life, or not to be remembered at all?
Jennifer1215 More than 1 year ago
I was excited about this book, small town drama is usually fairly entertaining, but this book honestly had no point whatsoever. I kept reading night after night thinking ok, tonight will be the night where it makes sense as to why a person would bother writing the stories of these characters. Each time, I was disappointed. As other people have mentioned, there are three main characters, none of whom actually do anything. There are some good one liners in the book, but that is about all this book has going for it. The ending, ridiculous as it was, couldn't come soon enough. Sorry Mr. Klosterman.
Skarface More than 1 year ago
I always read Klosterman's work with great intersest. I've always felt that his essays are either right on, or pretentious and reaching. When I found out that he was writing his first novel about small town North Dakota life, I was greatly intrigued. I know it's where he came from, and since I came from there as well... I felt I could be a fair judge. What success! It's like he took notes on my life and wove them into characters. The most accurate descriptions come as he describes the feeling of being a small town quarterback. This novel made me appreciate Chuck Klosterman more than I ever thought I would. A great book, by an even greater observer!
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you liked gonzo journalism and new styles of creative writing then you would probably like this book that Chuck has written along with some of his other interesting books, like Killing Yourself To Live: 85% a True Story being my favorite one. Well today I found out his new book Downtown Owl has been released so I rushed out like a little school girl to go get it. All of his previous work is about pop-culture and his own twist on it and a lot of it being about about music and musicians. Downtown Owl though is Chucks' first novel and doesn't quite carry the same tone as his other books do because of it being a novel rather than a review or self reflection. It probably relates to his life in one way or another as the story takes place in his home state and in a small town that may or may not be similair to the one he grew up and describes in Fargo Rock City. Anyways, the story in Downtown Owl has nothing directly related to music in it (at least for the first 60 pages) and it's about a high school football player (that has goth fantasies and sadistic dreams of torturing his coach/english teacher), a young female history teacher from Milwakee that just smokes the remainder of her pot and turns into a bar fluzee, and an old man that sits around at a local coffee shop with a group of other old men and play poker dice to determine who gets the tab (old man is my favorite character). Anyways, if you've read this much about my little man crush on C. Klosterman then I think you'd definitily enjoy these books. If not the new novel that was just released may I suggest the rest of his books in this order: Killing Yourself to Live, Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, Fargo Rock City, and IV.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read "Downtown Owl" two years ago and am still suggesting it to those looking for something different to read. I admit that I have read at least half of Meg Cabot's published works, and when someone loaned me "Downtown Owl" in college as something different to read: I could not put it down. Even if you weren't born or didn't experience the 80s the way that Klosterman did in North Dakota, that's okay because he writes so that the audience still understands the musical or cultural reference. I have read other readers commented on Klosterman's newspaper articles he opened and closed the novel with, and the most interesting thing was that it sort of reminded me of Shakespeare's use of the 'chorus' in "Romeo and Juliet". I doubt that this is the edge Klosterman was aiming for, but it set the story for me that this is a story of a town and this is how the story ends. I've read that many readers think that the plot is pointless -- the characters are ambling around Owl with no purpose. I think that is how life is; sure we attempt to live with a purpose but the story that is currently being written in our history, does it have one? If not, then why judge "Downtown Owl"? It's about a part of three individual's lives during August 1983 until February 1984 when a snowstorm hits Owl, North Dakota and that's it. The story hardly matters to me -- what matters is the way the story is told and the voice that is conveyed. Klosterman has a knack of having a definite voice to his writing and I highly recommend "Downtown Owl" just based on that reasoning.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I dont think theres any scarface here. Sorry.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Who is owlclans leader? Shimmerstar or Owlstar?
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Extremely entertaining and funny. Most of the time i cannot put it down. Definately worth the money im extremely happy with it.
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FayeT More than 1 year ago
It took me a few pages to warm up to the book, but once I did I couldn't put it down. This is my first book by this author and now I can't wait to move onto his other works. The ending was slightly infuriating but also perfect. I know I'll go back to this book again and again. I highly recomend the book and the author.
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NJMetal More than 1 year ago
I have read Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman. Now I will a) write a review of it here and b) attempt to write said review in the style of Chuck Klosterman. When I picked up this book I was (mostly) excited to read a new work by Mr. Klosterman though (somewhat) apprehensive about his taking on of the fiction novel genre. I was 85% happy with the final outcome. This is my review. My review is this. After having read his first published stab at fiction in the form of a short story in Chuck Klosterman IV I didn't believe he could really make me enjoy a full scale novel. I was wrong. Downtown Owl was pretty good. Klosterman sticks to what he knows. Pop culture observations this time done through the eyes of ficticious characters. So even if the book is not a literary masterpiece, it still is an honest solid work by the well established author. My biggest qualm with the story (and it's not a major point of contention) is that on the whole the story seemed to lack a point. We follow three different characters from the same small rural town of OWL living three different kinds of existences but never crossing each others paths. A sort of three seperate stories united and seperate at the same time. The ending was paradoxically unnecessary and necessary at the same. The ending is truely the part of the book that warrants discussion and debate. All in all another good (and different) effort by Chuck Klosterman. I look foreward to his next book.
eagleck More than 1 year ago
This is a well written book. The 3 main characters are well developed as are the supporting characters. There are many lines in the book you will enjoy sharing if you read this in a book club. The plot is not a very concrete one. I didn't know where the story was going and it didn't really go anywhere. This will be fine for many people. This book should not be read by those who read for escapism, though. If you have some decent disposable income, go ahead and buy it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago