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Klosterman mines the layers of angst in the town of Owl

Does Zack Morris deserve to be studied as closely as Anna Karenina? Is Screech worthy of the type of close reading one might normally associate with Ivan Ilych? I doubt it. But in any event, I knew I loved the work of Chuck Klosterman, the specs-wearing, oddly voiced surveyor of pop culture tomfoolery, when I read his wondrously in-depth analysis of "Saved By the Bell," the NBC teen comedy that seemed to run forever, and yet never made anyone laugh. (It also proved to be the career starting point for "Showgirls'" own Nomi Malone, Elizabeth Berkley, and professional handsome dude Mario Lopez, but those are stories for another time.)

The piece, which appears in Klosterman's modern classic "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs" -- never has a title more succinctly summarized an author's modus operandi -- is a fine representation of what has made him one of the most popular writers of his generation. The Minnesota native wrote for Spin for many years, and today contributes regularly to Esquire. While some of his more recent pieces seem to lack the glorious punch of his older works -- the references to '80s rock start to seem stale after a while -- his remains an extremely witty, extremely human voice.

But I wish he hadn't written a novel. Or, I wish he had written a better novel than "Downtown Owl," his readable, yet strangely unmemorable debut work of fiction.

The setting is the small North Dakota town of Owl in the early 1980s, and it is a simple place, untouched by the hands of MTV, punk rock, cable television, and well, pretty much any of the trappings of Cold War hipster-hood. We spend time with many of the town's denizens, but Klosterman mainly focuses on three characters whose stories alternate from chapter to chapter. There is Mitch, a smart if aimless high schooler, unaffectionately nicknamed "Vanna" by his semi-sadistic English teacher and football coach, John Laidlaw. (Laidlaw becomes a rather compelling if one-note periphery character, known for his history of illicit affairs with female students.) Then there is Julia, a young teacher who has taken her first job in Owl and becomes a regular on the local bar scene. And finally, Horace, a widowed loner whose backstory is easily the novel's most involving.

This trio constitutes the novel's central problem: None of them is particularly interesting, nor are their stories all that involving. For every winning moment, say, involving Julia's interest in a quiet local, or Mitch's sudden role in causing fisticuffs between the school's two toughest bruisers, there are too many long, uneventful, unmemorable passages.

Happily, Klosterman has always been successful at establishing time and place in his work, and to his credit, he makes Owl a believable creation. But it often feels as if characters and situations in "Downtown Owl" exist mainly so Klosterman can make pop culture references.

There are also the oh-so-tired "funny" names for the crazy locals. Ever since the immortal "Goodfellas," and its characters with names like Jimmy Two-Times ("I'm gonna go get the papers, get the papers") and Fat Andy, gangster films, especially, have foisted hackneyed, quite lame monikers upon us. Klosterman ups the ante in the cliche sweepstakes with a chapter devoted to the regulars at an Owl tavern: Bull Calf, Disco Ball, the Dog Lover, Buck Buck, Brother Killer, and, easily the worst, Little Stevie Horse 'N' Phone. Are these funny? Or clever? Not to me.

By the time the novel's giant set-piece, a natural disaster that finally draws our main trio of characters together occurs, the whole affair feels forced, unnecessary, and beneath such a strong writer.

Consider "Downtown Owl," then, the "Saved By the Bell" of novels: easy to digest, difficult to love, and virtually impossible to leave an emotional impact. Sorry Chuck, but a Zack Morris-esque time out was needed back in the rough draft stage.

Christopher Schobert is a freelance Buffalo critic.

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Downtown Owl

By Chuck Klosterman

Scribner

288 pages, $24

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