A New Voice

Chuck Klosterman has long been a darling of the nonfiction world. Now he’s just making stuff up.

By Jason Cohen May 19, 2009 Published in the November 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

LONGTIME Esquire writer Chuck Klosterman’s transition from youth-culture maven to novelist hasn’t snobbified his drinking habits: no Pellegrino or pinot for the man who celebrated The Real World and Saved by the Bell in his 2003 essay collection, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. “I could really use a Mountain Dew,” the redhead says, an hour before what will be a standing-room-only reading of his debut novel, Downtown Owl, at Powell’s City of Books.

This is Klosterman’s third reading in Portland, but he’s visited many other times with his girlfriend, a Beaverton native who works at Rolling Stone. “She’s very much still a Portland person,” he says. “She uses words like ‘stoked.’ Her sister will say ‘rad.’ I never hear those words in New York unless someone is trying to mock Sean Penn from the early ’80s. I feel like, as you move from East to West, the amount of snark in everyday dialogue kind of goes down.”

Snarklessness is also part of Downtown Owl, which tracks the lives of a high school football player, a 20-something schoolteacher, and a coffee-loving old-timer in the town of Owl, North Dakota. The book is a genuinely sentimental work of storytelling—not exactly the sort of zeitgeist-defining hipster narrative you might expect from the 36-year-old who’s routinely saddled with the “voice of a generation” tag. “The only reason critics ever say that about anybody is to later say it’s not true,” he gripes.

So what prompted him to make stuff up? “I wanted to see if I could do it. And I wanted to have characters say things that I created, but wouldn’t be attributed to me,” Klosterman says just before delivering his reading to a crowd of 250. (That’s about half the size of his hometown, Wyndmere, North Dakota.)

But just because Klosterman’s lived in New York City since 2002 doesn’t mean he inherently prefers a bigger, cooler, more sophisticated place. “I have found that the percentage of interesting and uninteresting people is identical,” he says. “There are interesting people in North Dakota; there are interesting people in New York. There’re more of them in New York, but there are also more boring people.”

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