In his last novel, An Unfortunate Woman, Richard Brautigan wrote that no place is more surreal than the Midwest. He was right. To explore this issue further you should read Chuck Klosterman’s new book (and his first novel), Downtown Owl. In his amazing story you will meet a small band of inhabitants from a fictional North Dakota town called Owl, circa 1983. This crowd includes a transplanted teacher, a high school coach who impregnates students, students who make and don’t make the football team, alcoholic farmers, retired geezers, barflys and other sundry characters who not only make up the nuclei of our small towns but our larger metropoli.
If you grew up in a small town you have met these people, if you grew up in a large city you have probably still met them. Maybe one married your cousin or coached your nephews or nieces. Perhaps they drove into your brother’s car on a drunken Saturday night or gave you grandchildren. The characters in this town are Everymen and Klosterman paints them in their glaring humanity and vulnerability – he does not look down upon them at all. Klosterman is one of them. He grew up in North Dakota.I am one of them. So are you. We are all in this book, some way somehow. I suggest you read it and find yourself. And while you are doing that you will laugh a lot and the more sensitive amongst you might cry. There is no doubt in these pages, Klosterman has made the jump from non-fiction to literature with Olympic grace. I’d give him my gold medal if I had one. Unfortunately I gave it to my dog and he lost it in the park.
But that’s another story.
Chuck Klosterman took the time to answer a few brief questions as he waited in airport terminals while city hopping on his book tour. I believe these questions touch the meta-physical issues of our time and explore the foundations of our very existence. Or maybe not. Judge for yourself.
Q: Thanks so much for taking the time for this. I have to start out with this obvious question which has probably already been hammering you; how was it switching gears into fiction mode? Is this the direction you’ve been wanting to take as a writer, having perhaps been sidelined by journalism or was it (the novel) a new venue you just wanted to try?
A: It was definitely harder, but mostly just different. I wouldn’t say this is necessarily a direction I’ve always wanted to take, although I probably would have answered differently if you would have asked me about this five or ten or 15 years ago. I guess I’m running out of ways to answer this question. Maybe I should just admit that I don’t know. It didn’t seem that crazy to me. Lots of writers have written both fiction and nonfiction. It’s not like I’m doing anything radical.
Q: Small Town North Dakota as a sense of place and as portrayed in your book seems pretty frightening. Yet, having grown up in such a locale, do you find yourself with strange yearnings to return to that time and place every now and then or did writing this book expel any such desire?
A: I just tried to make it interesting and entertaining. It’s not like this novel is some kind of definitive take on rural North Dakota or the early 1980s. I only selected rural North Dakota because I felt like I needed to have an authentic understanding of the place I was describing, and I picked 1984-84 because that was as far back as I could go without losing a semi-vivid memory of the specific conditions. My desire (or lack of desire) to be there really didn’t play a role in any of this.
Q: Sinclair Lewis was in the dog house with his fellow mid-westerners when he wrote Main Street. Do you expect any similar reactions from your fellow North Dakotans? Charles Bowden wrote what I thought was a harmless article on the Dakotas last year for the National Geographic and I guess the Governor wanted to rip him a new bung hole, wasn’t their kind of PR I suppose.
A: The reaction to that National Geographic story was insane. Those photographs were beautiful. I have no control over how people react to what I write, so I just stopped thinking about it. I obviously want people in North Dakota to like it, but I can’t make that happen. I’m sure some people will love it and some people will hate it, but that will mostly be a reflection of the individual having the specific reaction. Most normal people won’t particularly care either way. But whichever people make the loudest, most public displays of adoration or distaste will get the most attention, and then a bunch of other goofballs will use that phenomenon to argue that the novel is polarizing. That’s usually how it goes. It really has nothing to do with me.
Q: You’ve been living and teaching in Germany recently, how has that changed, if any, your outlook on your home country, be it politically, culturally, romantically or any other way?
A: My outlook on those things is always changing, so being in Germany just moved them in a weirder direction. This is a pretty depressing time to be an American, and I would feel that way if I was living on the moon. One thing I did realize in Germany is that laws don’t matter. For the most part, all the laws in first-world countries are relatively similar; what makes the countries different is which rules the separate societies view as essential and meaningful. That’s what dictates behavior. So if somebody wants to change the world, the way to do it is not through politics or legislation. Those things are just constructions. What you have to change is the mores, and the best way to do that is through art and technology.
Q. What about mixing art and politics? Remember when Abbie Hoffman and Ed Sanders tried to levitate the Pentagon in the late 60s at an anti-war protest? Can humor save us today? Will we be able to laugh as we warm our hands over burning oil drums on the street corner?
A: I don’t think humor saves people. In fact, I suspect most of the political humor happening right now — the proliferation of “fake news” and all that — is actually makes things worse. I think it’s just appealing to people’s pre-existing biases and making them feel quasi-smarter for no valid reason. But maybe I’d think differently had the Pentagon actually levitated.
Q. Kurt Vonnegut was fond of quoting fellow writer Heinrich Boll’s answer to his question, what is the worst trait of the German people? Heinrich said “Obedience.” Do you think that trait might also apply to the global population? Where is the anger in this country? Why aren’t we burning down Exxon-Mobile? And the White House? Can we mix anger and humor and bring about that cursed word, change?
A: I find your ideas interesting, but not very practical.
Q. Actually, going back to the Pentagon, I think Sanders did say they raised it an inch or two. Reports vary. But as these are difficult days, or as the Chinese curse declares, we are living in interesting times, what is your prescription for the days ahead for survival?
I don’t have much advice on how to survive the future. What do I know? I am starting to believe that the best way to exist is to try and make your own reality as small as possible. I recently heard about an interview someone did with DMX: They asked how he felt about the possibility of America finally having a black president. His response was something along the lines of, “There’s a black dude running for president?” So then the reporter filled him in on all the details of the modern political landscape, to which DMX replied, “Wait — there’s a black dude running for president, AND HIS LAST NAME IS OBAMA?” I am not sure if this story is true, but I hope it is. It seems like DMX has the right frame of mind.
(Downtown Owl is now available from Scribner.)