It’s with a kind of sinking feeling that I realize Chuck Klosterman‘s novel Downtown Owl sounds kind of good. I might even read it.
I know Chuck, marginally, and mostly through other people, but for a year we shared an op-ed page in the college newspaper, The Dakota Student, and I suffered the indignity of being compared to him, and found wanting — he didn’t take himself so seriously, I was told. He was funnier and more affable. It was my friends who told me this.
I had my column for three years, and it was my biggest claim to fame in college. I vented. I fumed. I opined. Sometimes I got angry letters or phone calls, but mostly I got compliments from the like-minded and glares from the opposite-minded. I don’t think I got credit for voicing my opinions particularly well, but voicing them at all. An old-fashioned college radical was a novelty in North Dakota in the 1980s.
I’m a bit embarassed to go back and read those columns now, though there’s a few good ones in the mix of hopelessy dated political rubbish and confusing thought pieces as I struggled through my own intellectual identity. Whatever its faults, though, the column was my claim to fame. UND is a small and close-knit campus where people know who each other are, and I usually got an “oh, you!” from new people. I enjoyed that tremendously. Recognition is the cornerstone of celebrity. Even years later, I meet former UND alumni or instructors who happilly recall my ability to make waves, my willingness to heap abuse on my fellow students for voting wrong or pursuing careers or partying instead of changing the world by… um… writing indignant newspaper columns.
I realized toward the end that I’d been too opinionated and not very informed, and started trying to reason my way through a column. I tried to apply what I’d learned in logic class to the issues, instead of making gross appeals to emotion. My infamy faded as I cooled off, and I knew by the last column I was done with trying to be the next H. L. Mencken. I got a lot more satisfaction for writing stories, and they stand the test of time better.
Perhaps the most representative moment of this transformation was after I read a short story at a reading… an elderly women approached me and thanked me very much and said it was a nice change of pace to hear something nice, she said. So that’s who I was — not Hunter Thomspon, but some nice young man writing stories grandmothers approved of. I gratefully accepted my destiny.
Over the next ten-odd years Chuck launched a pretty successful writing career. I wouldn’t say I seethed with resentment, but I rolled my eyes a little bit when I saw his books prominently displayed in Barnes & Noble, and pronounced “same old Chuck,” upon reading the first few pages of Fargo Rock City. I have to admit, though. Downtown Owl sounds kind of interesting. I haven’t read any of the heavy metal memoirs, but obvious small town sports stories catch my fancy.