Dark comedies have become an immensely popular sub-genre over the last few years, captivating readers with a serious and enthralling story that still manages to keep a fairly upbeat and jovial tone.
In trying to capture the intrigue and fascination of dark comedy, many authors have produced some incredibly unique and fascinating books in the process, one of which is Chuck Klosterman with his 2008 best-seller, Downtown Owl.
A novel that Klosterman himself says took him 10 years to write, Downtown Owl is a “small-town novel” where the location of the story feels both homely and isolated all at the same time.
Downtown Owl has received rave reviews since its release and has even seen a film adaptation that was released in 2012, but does this tale still stand as one of the best dark comedy books around today?
Overview Of The Novel
Based in the fictional town of Owl in North Dakota, the story is split between three protagonists, the old and politically charged Horace, the disillusioned and depressed alcoholic Julia, and the stoic and charming school quarterback Mitch.
The only relation these three characters have to one another is that they all reside in the town of Owl, but other than that, they have absolutely no connection with the book following the three of them individually.
In fact, the only time any of the three characters meet is when Mitch and Julia say hi while passing each other after class, but Horace never sees them throughout the book.
As the trio goes about their daily lives, enjoying and loathing the city in their own ways, we come to learn that random deaths have been occurring around the town for several months.
It becomes clear however that these people didn’t die for any particular reason, they were all in the middle of living fairly unremarkable lives and simply passed away before they could make a name for themselves.
Suddenly, a deadly blizzard rocks the town to its core, trapping people in their houses and sweeping others into danger who were unlucky enough to be outdoors.
The destructive event forces the trio to re-evaluate the meaning and purpose of their own lives as they struggle for survival against this horrific storm that actually occurred in real life.
About The Author
After he graduated from college, Chuck Klosterman became a journalist in North Dakota before he eventually took the courageous decision to move to New York in 2002 in an attempt to pursue a bigger and brighter future.
His excellent writing skills very quickly made him a regular columnist for GQ, Esquire, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.
It was around this time that he also began writing some of his own personal non-fiction books which were actually primarily based on rock culture and sports, and it wasn’t until 2008 that he finally made the decision, after a lot of encouragement from his fans, to write a book based in fiction, that book being Downtown Owl.
Just like with his non-fiction works, Downtown Owl sold extremely well and prompted Chuck to continue with his fictional venture as he would go on to write The Visible Man just three years later.
By now, readers were becoming familiar with the dark-comedic style Klosterman was using in his work, with the unique blend of emotions and tones coming together to create stories that were a nice breath of fresh air at the time.
Review Of Downtown Owl
Downtown Owl is a very strange book because, for much of the story, there isn’t really a plot that drives the book forward.
This isn’t to say that nothing happens, we still see Horace, Mitch, and Julia engaging in plenty of activities, but their lives are largely unremarkable until the storm hits in the latter half of the book, and this is kind of the point.
Downtown Owl isn’t trying to be some fantastical, glamorous, or highly-intense story with high stakes throughout, it is much slower and more methodical, giving the characters time to reflect on what their lives mean.
Of course, the backdrop of the mysterious deaths that have been cropping up around the city, and the oncoming deadly blizzard, do still create an underlying plot line that is still intriguing, but it’s the characters who really steal the show here.
You will also notice very quickly while reading this book that the town of Owl is almost a character itself, being described in astonishing detail by the author and having a real vibrancy and excitement to it that helps it feel alive but also mysterious.
The beginning of the book will definitely feel a bit slow to some readers, but when the characters are suddenly thrust into danger, the payoff of following these characters in their daily lives for so many pages is incredible, creating some very thought-provoking ideas and themes by the end.
Themes Of Downtown Owl
Just like a lot of other dark comedy novels, Downtown Owl hides a few very deep and relatable themes underneath its satirical exterior, so let’s take a closer look at the themes that are present in the book right now.
Throughout the entirety of the book, we never leave the town of Owl, and as readers, we come to almost feel like we’re living in it ourselves with how many places we come to learn of and the many landmarks that are described to us.
While this initially creates a sense of wonder and even adventure, we begin to see through the character’s eyes that it is pretty unremarkable, especially when they fantasize about the giant skyscrapers and luxurious hotels found in the cities.
Isolation, and feeling like you’re trapped in an environmental bubble, is a very strong theme in this book as Klosterman explores the good and the bad that can come with becoming too settled in one area for an extensive period.
Klosterman manages to write each of the three main characters in a way so that they sound upbeat and lighthearted on the surface, but will then include hints that each of them is secretly struggling with finding actual purpose in their lives.
For example, while Julia initially has a deep passion for teaching and educating others, once she actually earns the job and becomes very skilled at it, she almost immediately begins drinking heavily to fill in the gap.
Horace, on the other hand, lives his life rambling on about politics and playing dice games with his friends, but he too is trying to find a reason to go on after his wife passed away from a rare insomniac disease.
Becoming too comfortable and complacent in our lives can easily lead us to lose sight of our dreams and any sense of purpose or meaning in general, something which Klosterman is really trying to get at with each of these characters.
Living in a small town for many years of your life also means that you’re going to become very familiar with the people around you, whether it’s a few drinking buddies or just the local shopkeeper, there’s a real sense of friendship that naturally grows between these people.
This is a concept Klosterman explores quite extensively in this book as he details the importance of having people around and how reliant we can often be on others.
Whether it’s Mitch and his football partners who always keep him focused on full of confidence or Horace finding comfort in his friends who he’s known in the town for over twenty years, all the characters depend on the greater community to keep their spirits high.
Fiction And Reality
While the town of Owl itself is fictional and made up purely for the sake of this book, the brutal storm that swept across North Dakota in 1984 actually isn’t fictional and ended up blowing across Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa for several days.
By mixing a real event with a fictional town and characters, Klosterman creates a very honest reflection on the characters and how they see their lives, something that becomes very clear when noticing how the tone changes once the storm arrives.
Each of the characters may not live remarkable lives, but in many ways, they are denying reality and acting as if they are completely fine and complacent with where they are, living in a “fictional” world essentially.
The storm is the harsh reality reminding them that if they don’t move on and progress their lives, they could be swept away at any moment without anyone remembering who they were or what they accomplished.
In all honesty, it’s hard for many people to enjoy Downtown Owl if they have no prior knowledge of what the book is trying to say or the reason the pacing is so slow to begin with.
However, the payoff is so satisfying and relatable and really makes the book worth reading, especially if you’re a fan of dark comedies and want to flick through one of the very best books in this subgenre that has ever been written.
If you end up liking Downtown Owl, then you should definitely move on to The Visible Man, another dark comedy by Chuck Klosterman that also contains some very interesting and captivating themes that make it a very memorable read.