Although Downtown Owl is Chuck Klosterman's first novel, it's in some ways a sequel to his 2001 memoir Fargo Rock City. Klosterman's first book was split between ruminations on the glories of pop-metal and anecdotes about growing up in rural North Dakota; Downtown Owl takes place in another one of those North Dakota nowheres—the farming community of Owl—and is about a group of people a lot like the ones Klosterman likely knew as a boy. There's Mitch, a third-string Owl High School quarterback who has no particular interests other than sleeping; Horace, a reticent widower who spends his days taking in the gossip at the café; and Julia, a new teacher who feels out of place, if only by virtue of her advanced degree and broader life experiences. Over the fall and winter of 1983 and '84, these three strangers drink and stew and rehash local legends, as Klosterman describes what it's like to live in a place where everyone knows what you do, but no one knows who you are.
Klosterman's transition from cultural critic to novelist isn't always a smooth one. In his criticism, Klosterman tends toward matter-of-fact pronouncements, delivered in a voice that seems to say, "I have nothing invested in being 'right' about any of this." In fiction, that style detracts from the dramatic drive. Klosterman may know these characters, but he doesn't seem to have particularly strong feelings about the choices they make, which means readers have to supply their own reasons for caring about what happens to them. But even when the story's stuck in neutral, Downtown Owl's digressions remain entertaining and even penetrating. Klosterman frequently steps away from the main narrative to cover Owl's historical misperception of its high school football legacy, or nitpicky disputes among the local Catholics, or what's going through the minds of an English class forced to suffer through a discussion of George Orwell's 1984. In a way, the book's digressions are its narrative. Klosterman's not just telling the story of three people; he's telling the story of a town, and how it muddles along with a dwindling population and a narrow interest in what lies beyond the city limits. Klosterman captures the mindset of a place where long-term goals dissipate into the endless landscape, and people fall back on dealing with their immediate needs, whether they be getting drunk with friends, or getting drunk alone.