Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Life (and Death) In A Northern Town

Image from Amazon.com

How many of my readers have seen the movie Clerks? Not that travesty they released a few years ago, but the original. Great movie, right? The action in it is minimal, sure, but the characters were great and anyone who's ever worked retail can relate to it: dealing with the asinine customers, choking back your real feelings every minute of every day, coping with your slacker co-workers and lying snake boss, trying to work around busted fixtures that the management's too cheap to fix, all for minimum wage, a bajillion hours a week when they're busy and none when they're slow, and to basically be spat on by all of society.

But how many of you know how the movie was originally supposed to end? In the version you can rent today, Randall and Dante make plans for the next day, then Randall leaves, only to re-enter a second later, toss Dante's makeshift "Open" banner on the counter and say, "Hey! You're closed!" But, originally, after Randall left the second time, some guys were supposed to come in with guns, steal the cash out of the register, and shoot Dante to death. Kind of makes it a whole different movie, doesn't it?

Chuck Klosterman's equally character-driven novel Downtown Owl has a bizarre and shocking ending like that, too. It changes the entire meaning of the rest of the novel, into what I'm not quite sure, but deeply.

The novel, incidentally, is much better than the dust jacket would have you believe. "...Horace Jones...consumes a lot of coffee, misses his dead wife, and understands the truth. [The three main characters] all know each other completely, except that they've never met." These two sentences are so absolutely stupid and cringe-worthy that they're hypnotic. Since I started the book, I find them running through my mind while I'm brushing my teeth, or driving, or doing dishes. They're so awful that they're seared there forever, like a bad TV jingle or poorly worded slogan.

What the book is really about is life in an extremely small town, in North Dakota, in the early 1980s. If you've read Fargo Rock City, you'll know that that was the time and place of Klosterman's youth. Owl, North Dakota, is a town of about 800. We see life there from three perspectives. Mitch Hrdlicka is sixteen and has lived there his entire life. Julia Rabia is twenty-three, unmarried, and brand-new to town. The aforementioned Horace Jones is in his eighties and has also lived in Owl his entire life.

Owl has a lot of idiosyncrasies. Julia is usually the one to pick these out, such as the way every man in town has a bizarre, random nickname that sticks with them forever (I like "Kleptosaur," for a man who had been caught shoplifting a toy dinosaur when he was eight). There's no such thing as "dating," either -- one date equates to a relationship. Everybody plays football. Everybody goes to church on Wednesday nights. Outside of these two activities, the only real social life involves several bars in town (the VFW counts as a bar) and the bowling alley. And, the bartenders will often make you a drink in a plastic cup at closing time, so you can drink it on your drive home.

As I said before, the book is extremely character-driven (until the end) so it's hard to really describe "the plot." Julia settles in to a routine. As virtually the only unmarried woman in town between the ages of 20 and 40, she quickly becomes Owl's It Girl, drinking all night long and never paying. As is utterly typical, she develops a sincere interest in the one man who never pursues her, a local celebrity famous for making a single outstanding play in high school football that wound up being nationally televised. Even fame of this nature can be a difficult thing to live with, so her love interest is rather tortured and introverted.

Mitch plays football, because that's what everyone does. He argues with his friends about music and about which of two large, sociopathic classmates would win were they to fight each other (these passages are particularly funny). He hates his football coach, who's impregnated two of his female classmates and who gave him a nickname he hates. He's reading 1984 in preparation for that year, and fails to see significant differences between his life in Owl and life in the society described in that book. Everyone knows everyone's business in Owl, seemingly before they carry out their business. Mitch sees plenty of examples of Doublethink and Newspeak in his own life (the simple greeting "How's it going, Mitch?" is his main example...and it's hard to disagree with his analysis of these types of exchanges).

As for Horace, well, his life has wound down significantly. His wife died in a rather Gothic and lurid manner many years previously, and since then, his life has revolved around getting together with men he's known his whole life for coffee every day, and talking over the day's news events. The price of grain. The high school football team. Town gossip. Things like that.

The book meanders along nicely, until the last thirty pages shock you away from the book you thought you were reading and turn it into a completely different one. About the only thing that the hack who wrote the dust jacket didn't claim is that "This book is fundamentally about life and death..." but it is. In the face of the end, you completely re-evaluate the thoughts and choices and dreams of the three main characters. Many of them seem rather pointless. It's hard to know what the overall meaning is. And I don't want to speculate too much here, given that I presume most people reading this post haven't read the book. Anyone with thoughts is welcome to share them in comments; if you haven't read the book and don't want it ruined further, feel free to stay out of them.

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