New York Times Bestselling Author Chuck Kosterman'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.
Questions for Discussion 1. Downtown Owl is told primarily from the three different perspectives of Mitch, Julia, and Horace. With whom did you most closely identify? Although these three dominate the book, why do you think the author also devoted short chapters to both Mr. Laidlaw and Cubby Candy's points of view? 2. While presenting his class syllabus, Laidlaw explains that, "'The central issue in Nineteen Eighty-Four is personal privacy.'" Via Mitch's perspective, we also discover that Laidlaw sees personal privacy "'as the main issue in many novels.'" Why is Laidlaw preoccupied with personal privacy? In what way is this incongruous? How does the town react to Laidlaw's transgressions? 3. Julia quickly discovers that nearly every town resident has a nickname. In Owl, "If you met ten people, you had to remember twenty". Why does Julia think the Owl nicknames are particularly odd? Why do you think nicknames are featured so heavily in this novel? What do they imply about small town life? 4. Sprinkled throughout the novel are numbered and bulleted lists. One passage of dialogue translates Julia and Vance Druid's contrived speech into their genuine thoughts. Mitch's English exam is featured as an entire chapter. What role do these non-traditional narrative formats play? 5. Julia is devastated when she discovers the tortured cat outside of her apartment. Why did she go back to bed when she overheard the violence occurring in the middle of the night? Who do you think is responsible for killing the cat? 6. Why is the Gordon Kahl incident significant? What does it mean to the people who live in Owl? 7. Mitch lists five reasons why he does not understand or can't relate to the characters and struggles that exist in Nineteen Eighty-Four (galley page 109). What do these things that are perplexing to Mitch illustrate about his own personality and awareness? If you have read Nineteen Eighty-Four, how do these reactions differ from your own? How are they similar? 8. Discuss the relationship between Julia and Vance Druid. Why is Julia immediately drawn to him? Did Vance's revealed thoughts and intentions throughout his conversation with Julia at Yoda's (galley pages 112 - 128) come as a surprise? Did you hope that Julia and Vance would ultimately end up together? 9. Of his two secrets, the one that Horace most despises - and the only one that is explicitly revealed - is the deal he foolishly made with Chester Grimes. What is Horace's second secret? 10. Although we learn about Horace's deceased wife and Mitch comes to regret not spending more time with his sister, there is little other mention of family relationships in the book. Do you think that this was a deliberate choice made by the author? If so, why may he have purposely chosen to focus mainly on the relationships between friends, neighbors, teachers, students, enemies, and strangers in Owl instead? 11. Much of the conversation between Mitch and his friends is devoted to determining who would win in a fight - Cubby Candy or Grendel. Why has Mitch been nominated as the expert on the matter? If the storm had not interrupted, what do you think the result of the fight would have been? What does the chapter told from Cubby Candy's perspective reveal and why is there not a chapter told from Grendel's perspective? 12. Discuss why you think the author opened and closed the novel with newspaper articles. Though these articles are both recounting the same catastrophe, how are they different? How would the story change if the placement of these articles - one at the beginning and one at the end - were switched? 13. What is the irony in the article that concludes the novel? Does this make for a satisfying or dissatisfying end to the story? Is there a message or lesson in this book about false perceptions? 14. How do you think life would resume in Owl after the blizzard? Would the people and places change or would they remain the same? Enhance Your Book Club The only chapter in the book that is not devoted to a particular character focuses on the shared and shocking experience of the killer blizzard. Klosterman makes the blizzard palpable through the use of analogy. Have each member of your group come up with one additional analogy that could be used to describe the catastrophic event. Then, do a similar exercise, but instead write an analogy to describe a slightly less cataclysmic but perhaps equally momentous event, such as your first swim in the ocean, a first kiss, eating ice cream, your favorite concert, etc. Share with the group. Julia lists the nicknames that she can remember and why they have been given to her fellow Owl inhabitants. As a group, give each member a nickname (a new one if someone already has one) and explain why it would be appropriate. The blizzard featured in this novel is said to be based on true events. Research this storm and share any interesting discoveries with the group. Read one of Klosterman's previous books, which include Fargo Rock City, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Killing Yourself to Live, and Chuck Klosterman IV. Downtown Owl is Klosterman's first novel. How does it compare to his other work? What elements, if any, of his signature writing style are apparent in Downtown Owl?
Chuck Klosterman is the bestselling author of many books of nonfiction (including Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, I Wear the Black Hat, Fargo Rock City and Chuck Klosterman X) and two novels (Downtown Owl and The Visible Man). He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, GQ, Esquire, Spin, The Guardian, The Believer,Billboard, The A.V. Club, and ESPN. Klosterman served as the Ethicist for The New York Times Magazine for three years, and was an original founder of the website Grantland with Bill Simmons.