Sunday, July 19, 2009

Downtown Owl: my new sub-hobby as a Chuck Klosterman apologist (as if he needs one)

Regardless of book quality, rarely do I complete a book in less than a week. Granted, Chuck Klosterman is relatively easy to read--sometimes I find it easier to read Klosterman than the comics section.

Why do I find him so easy to read these days? Klosterman feels like a pseudo-friend as I read his work. I don't think I have the life, time or energy for many friends these days. I don't necessarily lament this, I live a blessed life. However, there's a distinct quality and added value to reading (hearing) something about a philosophical shared experience. Though I wasn't born in the Northern Great Plains (NGP), I recently lived there for 8 1/2 years, and those years left an indelible imprint on my life. Klosterman no longer lives in North Dakota, yet he writes in a way that attempts to extract meaning from his life in North Dakota that only distance provides. As I am neither a book critic or well-read, I wonder if Klosterman is unique in his depiction of the NGP, one who understands the cultural characteristics of NGP life and actually names them with a bit of critique and an abiding affection (Klosterman dedicates the novel to "Melissa" and "North Dakota." The only author I can recall who comes close is Garrison Keillor (is Klosterman a sort of Gen X Keillor? I'm waiting for Klosterman's new book in October). The major difference I would note is Keillor's distinct use of sarcasm is mostly absent in Klosterman. Where Keillor gave me humorous insights to cultural quirks in the NGP, Klosterman has helped me extract meaning from my experiences in the NGP over the past 8 years.

As a pastor in the NGP, I served in places like Owl, North Dakota, but I never lived there. I always went home to the big city to sleep in my bed with my dear wife. I attended basketball games, I ate at the local cafes, I observed teenage socialization, I observed particular family dynamics, I participated in senior citizen philosophical symposiums in church basements and local eateries. After all of those years in NGP ministry, I learned that though I had a passport into strange places in people's lives that few (if any) other people had, most people behave differently in the known proximity of their pastor. Therefore there was much I didn't see in people's basic lives. Klosterman provided plausible and interesting depictions of characters with whom I interacted in the congregations I served--but I also didn't get to know. Klosterman filled in some curious gaps for me. Even though Klosterman claims his work is not autobiographical, he is writing about what he knows. Though Klosterman creates an omniscient narrator for Downtown Owl, I feel like the novel represents getting together with a friend to compare and contrast life in particular towns of which Klosterman knows.

After reading reviews of Downtown Owl from Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times. Both reviewers critique Klosterman's level of omniscience, that Downtown Owl reads too much like a Klosterman essay, with nimble cultural commentary that is sometimes distracting from character development. This critique may or may not be valid; I suppose it may depend on why you're reading the book. Though I didn't necessarily care about all of Klosterman's cultural commentary from the narrator, I'm not sure Klosterman cares if a reader resonates with all of his references. I believe that is his style. He gives his readers too much to think about, but writes in a way that says, "enjoy what you can, gain insight from what you can, toss aside the rest. It doesn't bother me." Sure, some of Klosterman's social commentaries may have been superfluous to character development, but it didn't take away from my personal resonance with the characters and the general observations about Owl compared to the rest of America. I was still able to extract meaning in light of my own experiences that made me laugh and think on multiple levels. Few authors have that kind of cache with me, which is why I finished the book in a week.

If you want to learn more about Klosterman, check out his two-part podcast appearance with Bill Simmons from ESPN (look for June 28-29). My big learning from these podcasts was that the only way Klosterman was able to get his novel published was that Downtown Owl was part of a two book deal, the other being a book of essays (to be released October 2009). I'm glad Klosterman has the kind of leverage that he can write out of his own creative place and not merely what some believe the market will bear. I hope that Downtown Owl sold enough books that Klosterman will write another novel.

Post script on books: Klosterman was about the only reading distraction I had to finishing Tess of the D'Urbervilles this week. In the quest for something new, Christopher Hitchens "god is not Great" was available at my local library branch. Though somewhat interesting, Hitchens won't eclipse Tess on my priority list. But something else may come along...

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