Questions for Discussion
1. Downtown Owl is told primarily from the three different perspectives of Mitch, Julia, and Horace. With whom did you most closely identify? Although these three dominate the book, why do you think the author also devoted short chapters to both Mr. Laidlaw and Cubby Candy's points of view?
2. While presenting his class syllabus, Laidlaw explains that, "'The central issue in Nineteen Eighty-Four is personal privacy.'" Via Mitch's perspective, we also discover that Laidlaw sees personal privacy "'as the main issue in many novels.'" Why is Laidlaw preoccupied with personal privacy? In what way is this incongruous? How does the town react to Laidlaw's transgressions?
3. Julia quickly discovers that nearly every town resident has a nickname. In Owl, "If you met ten people, you had to remember twenty". Why does Julia think the Owl nicknames are particularly odd? Why do you think nicknames are featured so heavily in this novel? What do they imply about small town life?
4. Sprinkled throughout the novel are numbered and bulleted lists. One passage of dialogue translates Julia and Vance Druid's contrived speech into their genuine thoughts. Mitch's English exam is featured as an entire chapter. What role do these non-traditional narrative formats play?
5. Julia is devastated when she discovers the tortured cat outside of her apartment. Why did she go back to bed when she overheard the violence occurring in the middle of the night? Who do you think is responsible for killing the cat?
6. Why is the Gordon Kahl incident significant? What does it mean to the people who live in Owl?
7. Mitch lists five reasons why he does not understand or can't relate to the characters and struggles that exist in Nineteen Eighty-Four (galley page 109). What do these things that are perplexing to Mitch illustrate about his own personality and awareness? If you have read Nineteen Eighty-Four, how do these reactions differ from your own? How are they similar?
8. Discuss the relationship between Julia and Vance Druid. Why is Julia immediately drawn to him? Did Vance's revealed thoughts and intentions throughout his conversation with Julia at Yoda's (galley pages 112 - 128) come as a surprise? Did you hope that Julia and Vance would ultimately end up together?
9. Of his two secrets, the one that Horace most despises - and the only one that is explicitly revealed - is the deal he foolishly made with Chester Grimes. What is Horace's second secret?
10. Although we learn about Horace's deceased wife and Mitch comes to regret not spending more time with his sister, there is little other mention of family relationships in the book. Do you think that this was a deliberate choice made by the author? If so, why may he have purposely chosen to focus mainly on the relationships between friends, neighbors, teachers, students, enemies, and strangers in Owl instead?
11. Much of the conversation between Mitch and his friends is devoted to determining who would win in a fight - Cubby Candy or Grendel. Why has Mitch been nominated as the expert on the matter? If the storm had not interrupted, what do you think the result of the fight would have been? What does the chapter told from Cubby Candy's perspective reveal and why is there not a chapter told from Grendel's perspective?
12. Discuss why you think the author opened and closed the novel with newspaper articles. Though these articles are both recounting the same catastrophe, how are they different? How would the story change if the placement of these articles - one at the beginning and one at the end - were switched?
13. What is the irony in the article that concludes the novel? Does this make for a satisfying or dissatisfying end to the story? Is there a message or lesson in this book about false perceptions?
14. How do you think life would resume in Owl after the blizzard? Would the people and places change or would they remain the same?
Enhance Your Book Club
The only chapter in the book that is not devoted to a particular character focuses on the shared and shocking experience of the killer blizzard. Klosterman makes the blizzard palpable through the use of analogy. Have each member of your group come up with one additional analogy that could be used to describe the catastrophic event. Then, do a similar exercise, but instead write an analogy to describe a slightly less cataclysmic but perhaps equally momentous event, such as your first swim in the ocean, a first kiss, eating ice cream, your favorite concert, etc. Share with the group.
Julia lists the nicknames that she can remember and why they have been given to her fellow Owl inhabitants. As a group, give each member a nickname (a new one if someone already has one) and explain why it would be appropriate.
The blizzard featured in this novel is said to be based on true events. Research this storm and share any interesting discoveries with the group.
Read one of Klosterman's previous books, which include Fargo Rock City, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Killing Yourself to Live, and Chuck Klosterman IV. Downtown Owl is Klosterman's first novel. How does it compare to his other work? What elements, if any, of his signature writing style are apparent in Downtown Owl?
August 15, 1983
When Mitch Hrlicka heard that his high school football coach had gotten another teenage girl pregnant, he was forty bushels beyond bamboozled. He could not understand what so many females saw in Mr. Laidlaw. He was inhumane, and also sarcastic. Whenever Mitch made the slightest mental error, Laidlaw would rhetorically scream, "Vanna? Vanna? Are you drowsy, Vanna? Wake up! You can sleep when you are dead, Vanna!" Mr. Laidlaw seemed unnaturally proud that he had nicknamed Mitch "Vanna White" last winter, solely based on one semifunny joke about how the surname "Hrlicka" needed more vowels. Mitch did not mind when other kids called him Vanna, because almost everyone he knew had a nickname; as far as he could tell, there was nothing remotely humiliating about being called "Vanna," assuming everyone understood that the name had been assigned arbitrarily. It symbolized nothing. But Mitch hated when John Laidlaw called him "Vanna," because Laidlaw assumed it was humiliating. And that, clearly, was his goal.
Christ, it was humid. When Mitch and his teenage associates had practiced that morning at 7:30 a.m., it was almost cool; the ground had been wet with dew and the clouds hovered fourteen feet off the ground. But now -- eleven hours later -- the sun was burning and falling like the Hindenburg. The air was damp wool. Mitch limped toward the practice field for the evening's upcoming death session; he could already feel sweat forming on his back and above his nose and under his crotch. His quadriceps stored enough lactic acid to turn a triceratops into limestone. "God damn," he thought. "Why do I want this?" In two days the team would begin practicing in full pads. It would feel like being wrapped in cellophane while hauling bricks in a backpack. "God damn," he thought again. "This must be what it's like to live in Africa." Football was not designed for the summer, even if Herschel Walker believed otherwise.
When Mitch made it to the field, the other two Owl quarterbacks were already there, facing each other twelve yards apart, each standing next to a freshman. They were playing catch, but not directly; one QB would rifle the ball to the opposite freshman, who would (in theory) catch it and immediately flip it over to the second QB who was waiting at his side. The other quarterback would then throw the ball back to the other freshman, and the process would continue. This was how NFL quarterbacks warmed up on NFL sidelines. The process would have looked impressive to most objective onlookers, except for the fact that both freshman receivers dropped 30 percent of the passes that struck them in the hands. This detracted from the fake professionalism.
Mitch had no one to throw to, so he served as the holder while the kickers practiced field goals. This duty required him to crouch on one knee and remain motionless, which (of course) is not an ideal way to get one's throwing arm loose and relaxed. Which (of course) did not really matter, since Coach Laidlaw did not view Mitch's attempts at quarterbacking with any degree of seriousness. Mitch was not clutch. Nobody said this, but everybody knew. It was the biggest problem in his life.
At 7:01, John Laidlaw blew into a steel whistle and instructed everyone to bring it in. They did so posthaste.
"Okay," Laidlaw began. "This is the situation. The situation is this: We will not waste any light tonight, because we have a beautiful evening with not many mosquitoes and a first-class opportunity to start implementing some of the offense. I realize this is only the fourth practice, but we're already way behind on everything. It's obvious that most of you didn't put five goddamn minutes into thinking about football all goddamn summer, so now we're all behind. And I don't like being behind. I've never been a follower. I'm not that kind of person. Maybe you are, but I am not.
"Classes start in two weeks. Our first game is in three weeks. We need to have the entire offense ready by the day we begin classes, and we need to have all of the defensive sets memorized before we begin classes. And right now, I must be honest: I don't even know who the hell is going to play for us. So this is the situation. The situation is this: Right now, everybody here is equally useless. This is going to be an important, crucial, important, critical, important two weeks for everyone here, and it's going to be a real kick in the face to any of you who still want to be home watching The Price Is Right. And I know there's going to be a lot of people in this town talking about a lot of bull crap that doesn't have anything to do with football, and you're going to hear about certain things that happened or didn't happen or that supposedly happened or that supposedly allegedly didn't happen to somebody that probably doesn't even exist. These are what we call distractions. These distractions will come from all the people who don't want you to think about Owl Lobo football. So if I hear anyone on this team perpetuating those kinds of bullshit stories, everyone is going to pay for those distractions. Everyone. Because we are here to think about Owl Lobo football. And if you are not thinking exclusively -- exclusively -- about Owl Lobo football, go home and turn on The Price Is Right. Try to win yourself a washing machine."
It remains unclear why John Laidlaw carried such a specific, all-encompassing hatred for viewers of The Price Is Right. No one will ever know why this was. Almost as confusing was the explanation as to why Owl High School was nicknamed the Lobos, particularly since they had been the Owl Owls up until 1964. During the summer of '64, the citizens of Owl suddenly concluded that being called the Owl Owls was somewhat embarrassing, urging the school board to change the nickname to something "less repetitive." This proposal was deeply polarizing to much of the community. The motion didn't pass until the third vote. And because most of the existing Owl High School athletic gear still featured its long-standing logo of a feathered wing, it was decided that the new nickname should remain ornithological. As such, the program was known as the Owl Eagles for all of the 1964-1965 school year. Contrary to community hopes, this change dramatically increased the degree to which its sports teams were mocked by opposing schools. During the especially oppressive summer of 1969, they decided to change the nickname again, this time becoming the Owl High Screaming Satans. (New uniforms were immediately purchased.) Two games into the '69 football season, the local Lutheran and Methodist churches jointly petitioned the school board, arguing that the nickname "Satan" glorified the occult and needed to be changed on religious grounds; oddly (or perhaps predictably), the local Catholic church responded by aggressively supporting the new moniker, thereby initiating a bitter feud among the various congregations. (This was punctuated by a now infamous street fight that involved the punching of a horse.) When the Lutheran minister ultimately decreed that all Protestant athletes would have to quit all extracurricular activities if the name "Satan" remained in place, the school was forced to change nicknames midseason. Nobody knew how to handle this unprecedented turn of events. Eventually, one of the cheerleaders noticed that the existing satanic logo actually resembled an angry humanoid wolf, a realization that seemed brilliant at the time. (The cheerleader, Janelle Fluto, is now a lesbian living in Thunder Bay, Ontario.) The Screaming Satans subsequently became the Screaming Lobos, a name that was edited down to Lobos upon the recognition that wolves do not scream. This nickname still causes mild confusion, as strangers sometimes assume the existence of a mythological creature called the "Owl Lobo," which would (indeed) be a terrifying (and potentially winged) carnivore hailing from western Mexico. But -- nonetheless, and more importantly -- there has not been any major community controversy since the late sixties. Things have been perfect ever since, if by "perfect" you mean "exactly the same."
Mitch and the rest of the Lobos clapped their hands simultaneously and started to jog one lap around the practice field, ostensibly preparing to perform a variety of calisthenics while thinking exclusively about Owl Lobo football and not fantasizing about The Price Is Right. But such a goal was always impossible. It was still summer. As Mitch loped along the sidelines, his mind drifted to other subjects, most notably a) Gordon Kahl, b) the Georgetown Hoyas, c) how John Laidlaw managed to seduce and impregnate Tina McAndrew, and d) how awful it must feel to be John Laidlaw's wife.
August 25, 1983
"You're going to like it here," said Walter Valentine. He said this from behind a nine-hundred-pound cherrywood desk, hands interlocked behind his head while his eyes looked toward the ceiling, focusing on nothing. "I have no doubt about that. I mean, it's not like this is some kind of wonderland. This isn't anyone's destination city. It's not Las Vegas. It's not Monaco. It's not like you'll be phoning your gal pals every night and saying, 'I'm living in Owl, North Dakota, and it's a dream come true.' But you will like it here. It's a good place to live. The kids are great, in their own way. The people are friendly, by and large. You will be popular. You will be very, very popular."
Julia did not know what most of those sentences meant.
"I will be popular," she said, almost as if she was posing a question (but not quite).
"Oh, absolutely," Valentine continued, now rifling through documents that did not appear particularly official. "I know that you are scheduled to teach seventh-grade history, eighth-grade geography, U.S. History, World History, and something else. Are you teaching Our State? I think you're scheduled to teach Our State. Yes. Yes, you are. 'Our State.' But that's just an unfancy name for North Dakota history, so that's simple enough: Teddy Roosevelt, Angie Dickinson, lignite coal, that sort of thing. The Gordon Kahl incident, I suppose. Of course, the fact that you're not from North Dakota might make that a tad trickier, but only during the first year. After that, history just repeats itself. But I suppose the first thing we should talk about is volleyball."
"What do you know about volleyball?"
Julia had been in downtown Owl for less than forty-eight hours. The land here was so relentlessly flat; it was the flattest place she'd ever seen. She had driven from Madison, Wisconsin, in nine hours, easily packing her entire existence into the hatchback of a Honda Civic. There was only one apartment building in the entire town and it was on the edge of the city limits; it was a two-story four-plex, and the top two apartments were empty. She took the bigger one, which rented for fifty-five dollars a month. When she looked out her bedroom window, she could see for ten miles to the north. Maybe for twenty miles. Maybe she was seeing Manitoba. It was like the earth had been pounded with a rolling pin. The landlord told her that Owl was supposedly getting cable television services next spring, but he admitted some skepticism about the rumor; he had heard such rumors before.
Julia was now sitting in the office of the Owl High principal. He resumed looking at the ceiling, appreciating its flatness.
"I've never played volleyball," Julia replied. "I don't know the rules. I don't even know how the players keep score of the volley balling."
"Oh. Oh. Well, that's unfortunate," Valentine said. "No worries, but that's too bad. I only ask because it looks like we're going to have to add volleyball to the extracurricular schedule in two years, or maybe even as soon as next year. It's one of those idiotic Title IX situations -- apparently, we can't offer three boys' sports unless we offer three girls' sports. So now we have to figure out who in the hell is going to coach girls' volleyball, which is proving to be damn near impossible. Are you sure that isn't something you might eventually be interested in? Just as a thought? You would be paid an additional three hundred dollars per season. You'd have a full year to get familiar with the sport. We'd pay for any books on the subject you might need. I'm sure there are some wonderful books out there on the nature of volleyball."
"I really, really cannot coach volleyball," Julia said. "I'm not coordinated."
"Oh. Oh! Okay, no problem. I just thought I'd ask." Mr. Valentine looked at her for a few moments before his pupils returned to the ceiling. "Obviously, it would be appreciated if you thought about it, but -- ultimately -- volleyball doesn't matter. We just want you to do all the things that you do, whatever those things may be. I'm sure you bring a lot to the table. Do you have any questions for me?"
Julia had 140,000 questions. She asked only one.
"What's it like to live here?"
This was not supposed to sound flip, but that's how it came out. Julia always came across as cocky whenever she felt nervous.
"It's like living anywhere, I suppose." Valentine unlocked his fingers and crossed his arms, glancing momentarily at Julia's face. He then proceeded to stare at the mallard duck that was painted on his coffee cup, half filled with cherry Kool-Aid. "Owl's population used to be around twelve hundred during the height of the 1970s, but now it's more like eight hundred. Maybe eight fifty. I don't know where all the people went. It's a down town, Owl. We still have a decent grocery store, which is important, but -- these days -- it seems like a lot of folks will drive to Jamestown, or even all the way to Valley City, just to do their food shopping. Americans are crazy. There's a hardware store, but I wonder how much longer that will last. We have a first-rate Chevrolet dealership. We have two gas stations. We have seven bars, although you can hardly count the Oasis Wheel. You probably don't want to spend your nights at the Oasis Wheel, unless you're not the kind of woman I think you are. Heh! And you've probably heard that the movie theater is going to close, and I'm afraid that's true: It is closing. But the bowling alley is thriving. It's probably the best bowling alley in the region. I honestly believe that."
By chance, Julia did enjoy bowling. However, when the most positive detail about your new home is that the bowling alley is thriving, you have to like bowling a lot in order to stave off depression. And -- right now, in the middle of this conversation -- Julia was more depressed than she had ever been in her entire twenty-three-year existence. As she sat in Walter Valentine's office, she felt herself wanting to take a nap on the floor. But she (of course) did not do this; she just looked at him, nodding and half smiling. She could always sleep later, after she finished crying.
"The thing that you have to realize about a place like Owl is that everyone is aware of all the same things. There's a lot of shared knowledge," Valentine said. He was now leaning forward in his chair, looking at Julia and casually pointing at her chest with both his index fingers. "Take this year's senior class, for example. There are twenty-six kids in that class. Fifteen of them started kindergarten together. That means that a lot of those students have sat next to each other -- in just about every single class -- for thirteen straight years. They've shared every single experience. You said you grew up in Milwaukee, correct?"
"How big was your graduating class?"
"Oh, man. I have no idea," Julia said. "Around seven hundred, I think. It was a normal public school."
"Exactly. Normal. But your normal class was almost as big as our whole town. And the thing is, when those twenty-six seniors graduate, the majority will go to college, at least for two years. But almost all the farm kids -- or at least all the farm boys -- inevitably come back here when they're done with school, and they start farming with their fathers. In other words, the same kids who spent thirteen years in class with each other start going to the same bars and they bowl together and they go to the same church and pretty much live an adult version of their high school life. You know, people always say that nothing changes in a small town, but -- whenever they say that -- they usually mean that nothing changes figuratively. The truth is that nothing changes literally: It's always all the same people, doing all the same things."
Upon hearing this description, the one singular phrase that went through Julia's head was "Jesus fucking Christ." However, those were not the words that she spoke.
"Wow," she said. "That sounds kind of...unmodern."
"It is," Valentine said. Then he chuckled. Then he re-interlocked his fingers behind his skull and refocused his gaze on the ceiling. "Except that it's not. It's actually not abnormal at all. Look: I came here as a math teacher twenty years ago, and I thought I would be bored out of my trousers. I had grown up in Minot and I went to college in Grand Forks, so I considered myself urban. I always imagined I'd end up in Minneapolis, or even maybe Chicago; I have a friend from college who lives just outside of Chicago, so I've eaten in restaurants in that area and I have an understanding of that life. But once I really settled in Owl, I never tried to leave. I mean...sure, sometimes you think, 'Hey, maybe there's something else out there.' But there really isn't. This is what being alive feels like, you know? The place doesn't matter. You just live."
Julia could feel hydrochloric acid inside her tear ducts. There was an especially fuzzy tennis ball in her esophagus, and she wanted to be high. But she remained cool.
Julia told Mr. Valentine she was extremely excited to be working at Owl High, and she thanked him for giving her the opportunity to start a career in teaching, which she claimed was her lifelong dream. "Everybody only has one first job," he said in response. "No matter what you do in life, you'll always remember your first job. So welcome aboard and good luck, although you won't need it. You'll be extremely popular here. And if you change your mind about that excellent volleyball opportunity, do not hesitate to call. Keep me in the loop. I'm always here, obviously."
Julia exited Valentine's office and walked toward the school's main entrance, faster and more violent with every step. She was virtually running when she got to the door and sprinted to her car, which was one of only three vehicles in the parking lot. Ten days from now, school would officially start. This building would be the totality of her life. She already hated it. The overtly idyllic nature of Owl seemed paradoxically menacing; it was like a Burmese tiger trap for apolitical strangers who needed uninteresting jobs. She didn't know anyone and had no idea how she ever would. Her apartment was on the far side of town, which meant it was a three-minute drive. She passed two cars and two pickup trucks; all four drivers waved hello as she passed. The waving scared her. She soon arrived in her apartment, where she had no furniture (and no idea how to acquire any, as there were apparently no furniture stores within a thirty-mile radius). She cut open the cardboard box that held her cassettes and found a dubbed copy of Foreigner's 4, which she robotically placed into a boom box sitting on the floor. She fast-forwarded to "Juke Box Hero" and pushed play; the emptiness of the room produced a slight echo behind Lou Gramm's voice. Her apartment was like a bank vault with a refrigerator. Julia reached into the same cardboard box and found her copy of The Random House Thesaurus (College Edition), which contained drugs. The day before leaving Madison, Julia and her college roommates meticulously rolled four perfect joints and hid them in the thesaurus, operating under the assumption that buying pot would be impossible in small-town North Dakota (which was, in fact, the case). The plan was that Julia could smoke one joint after the first day of class, one on Thanksgiving (which she would have to spend alone), and one after the last day of school in May. The fourth was a spare that could be consumed when (and if) she needed to offset any major unforeseen emergency that might occur over the course of the school year.
Julia sat on her sleeping bag and smoked three of them, all in a row. It was 2:45 p.m.
August 28, 1983
His life revolved around coffee.
It was central to his existence.
He was that kind of person.
It wasn't even so much the taste, although he did consider coffee to be delicious; he mostly loved the process of drinking it. Every day at 3:00 p.m. (except on Sundays), he drove three miles into town, sat on the third stool in Harley's Café, and drank three cups of coffee, each cup with three tablespoons of sugar. This was not because Horace Jones had OCD or a superstitious obsession with the number three; it was just a coincidence. If you were to ask Horace which stool he sat in (or how many spoonfuls of sugar he placed in his coffee), he would have no idea. These were merely things he did. They were not things he considered.
All of the men in Harley's played poker dice to see who would pay for each round of coffee; the winner paid for everybody, which (curiously) was the goal. There were usually six players, so an entire round of coffee cost $1.50, plus tip. Horace won 16.6 percent of the time. He considered himself extremely unlucky. But winning or losing at poker dice was only a secondary issue, since the conversation at Harley's was always worth the trip into town; stimulating conversation was something Horace could look forward to every single afternoon. These are the topics that were primarily discussed:
1) How current meteorological conditions compared to whatever were supposed to be the average meteorological conditions (i.e., temperatures that were higher or lower than usual, rainfall amounts that seemed out of the ordinary, et cetera).
2) The success (or lack thereof) of the local high school athletic teams, and particularly how contemporary teams would have fared against Owl teams from the late 1960s and early '70s (the conclusion being "not very well").
3) Walter Mondale's potential run for the presidency, an undeniably hopeless venture that only served to illustrate how the state of Minnesota had been destroyed by the same kind of naïve Democrats who crashed all those helicopters in the Iranian desert.
4) The North Dakota State University football team, particularly the number of local North Dakota high school players the school was recruiting in comparison to the number of black, out-of-state, potentially criminal athletes who were already on the traveling roster.
5) The implausibility of specific plotlines on the television show Dallas.
6) Acquaintances who had recently died (or were in the process of dying, usually from cancer). This topic was increasing in regularity.
7) Area events they all recalled from the 1950s, generally described as having happened in the relatively recent past.
8) How the market price of hard red spring wheat ($3.51 per bushel) was barely a dollar more than its price during the Dirty Thirties. This made no goddamn sense to anyone.
9) Gordon Kahl.
10) Other people's problems.
"So...more problems with the Dog Lover." This was Edgar Camaro speaking. Edgar was the youngest of the coffee drinkers; he was sixty-three. "That idiot kid is going to end up sleeping with Jesus. Did you hear what he said the other night?"
"His statement about the rain?" asked Horace.
"Yes," replied Edgar. "The rain. Just imagine the goddamn scenario: The Dog Lover is tending bar on Saturday night -- this is early in the night, maybe seven o'clock -- and the idiot is already tight."
"Somebody needs to inform that kid that a good bartender never drinks before midnight," interjected Bud Haugen, a man who had briefly owned a bar during the Korean conflict. "Christ. You'd think everybody would know that."
"Well, sure," said Edgar. "You'd think someone would have given that idiot some sense, but I guess he only listens to that hound of his. Heh. But here we go: It starts to drizzle Saturday night, and a few of the guys in the bar -- this is like Edmund and Kuch and Woo-Chuck and that whole crew of outlaws -- they get up and start looking out the windows, because Lord knows we need the rain. And that idiot -- that idiot Dog Lover -- he turns down the jukebox and says, 'Haven't you farmers ever seen rain before?' Can you believe that? In the middle of the worst drought in forty years, he tells a bunch of paying customers that they're stupid for looking at the rain."
"I'm surprised Woo-Chuck didn't snap his spine," said eighty-eight-year-old Ollie Pinkerton, his lazy eye drifting around the room like a child looking for the bathroom. "I mean, don't get me wrong -- Woo-Chuck is a nice kid and a hard worker. But let's shoot straight: The man is a criminal." This was true. "Woo-Chuck" was an abbreviation of "Woodchuck." Bob (The Woodchuck) Hodgeman had served in Vietnam, which was something he never talked about. But everyone assumed he must have done (or at least seen) some crazy shit over there, because he drank in this awkward, exceedingly antisocial manner, and he drank all the time, and sometimes he punched his own friends for no reason and couldn't explain why. People called him Woodchuck (or, more often, Woo-Chuck) because he used to stash Quaaludes in the upholstery of his Monte Carlo. This seemed like something a woodchuck would do. On balance, he was a good person.
"Supposedly, that almost happened," Edgar continued. "They say Woo-Chuck walked up to the Dog Lover with a really queer look on his face. Remember that night last Christmas, when Woo-Chuck got loaded and threw a pitchfork at his son-in-law? I guess he had those same crazy eyes. But that idiot Dog Lover -- probably because he was already seventeen sheets to the wind -- he had no fear whatsoever. He just stood there like a concrete shithouse. Words were exchanged. And then the Dog Lover threw everybody out of the bar. Everybody. He emptied the whole place, and it wasn't even seven thirty. Locked all the doors. And then he just sat there, alone, swilling his own booze, listening to the Twins game on the radio. Have you ever heard of anything more asinine? If he's not careful, that bar is gonna end up worse than the Oasis Wheel. Some people just can't stand prosperity."
The Dog Lover's real name was Chet. He had lived a dubious life: Chet's father was (supposedly) one of the most successful bar owners in the Twin Cities; he (supposedly) co-owned five sports bars with Minnesota Vikings quarterback Tommy Kramer. Chet, however, was an irresponsible train wreck: DWIs, dope smoking, girl crazy, gun crazy, car crazy -- all the usual interests of the prototypical meathead miscreant. Chet flunked out of St. Cloud State University, was readmitted a year later, and was bounced a second time for selling (fake) pot on campus. His father didn't know what to do with him, and he certainly didn't want Chet hanging around Minneapolis with no job and no prospects; if that happened, Chet was destined to get involved with cocaine or gambling or arson. Chet was a twenty-five-year-old dirtbag. Everybody knew this. As such, his father played the only card he could manufacture: He bought his son a life in a place where it was hard to find trouble. He bought his son a bar in a town where nothing happened, moved him into a four-plex apartment complex, and told him to stay away from Minneapolis until he "learned how the world worked."
That was almost a year ago. Over the subsequent eleven months, Chet had managed to alienate almost every citizen in town, seemingly on purpose. The first thing he did was change the name of the bar from Teddy's (after the name of the previous owner) to Yoda's (a reference completely lost on the overwhelming majority of his clientele). He had a dangerous propensity for hiring Owl High School students as waitresses, getting them drunk on the job, and openly chiding them for dressing too conservatively; this practice was finally stopped after he fed sixteen-year-old Ann Marie Pegseth so many clandestine wine coolers that she removed her blouse and worked an entire shift in her bra. Two days later, Ann Marie's father threatened to destroy Chet's Z28 Camaro with dynamite. Chet was a prick and a provocateur, constantly outdrinking his patrons and ridiculing the blandness of their conversation. He told Phil Anderson that his wife needed to eat more salad. He told Cindy Brewer that her voice reminded him of "a cuntier version of Joan Rivers." One of his running shticks was insisting that he recognized Randy Pemberton's girlfriend from Hustler magazine's "Beaver Hunt" section. He charged way too much for booze (sometimes $2.50 a beer, even for Schmidt). But the one quality that truly drove the citizens of Owl bonkers -- and particularly the old men who had coffee at Harley's Café every day at 3:00 p.m. -- was Chet's intimacy with his dog. Chet had a black Labrador retriever, and he kept it inside his apartment. He turned a hunting animal into a house pet. This was less reasonable than talking to a brick wall. He would bring his dog inside the bar, and the dog often sat in the front seat of his Camaro, a vehicle which supposedly cost sixteen thousand dollars.
Just thinking about that dog made Horace furious. What kind of man treats his dog like a wife? You'd have to be mentally retarded. There were inside animals and there were outside animals, and any dog the size of a Labrador was absolutely, irrevocably, indisputably an outside animal. Oh, you might let a dog inside the pantry during a blizzard or a tornado, but kitchens are for humans. It was almost cruel: Dogs need to run. Dogs need to herd sheep and chase jackrabbits and retain the few grains of nobility that canines are born with. Only a fool couldn't tell the difference between a man and a beast, and this made Chet a fool; it made him the Dog Lover, which was a deeper insult than that bartender could possibly realize.
Horace wondered how long it had been since he'd set foot inside a tavern. Ten years? Probably ten years. He didn't like them anymore. The bars had changed: These days, all the young men drank beer. When he was in his thirties, men drank OFC whiskey. Nobody knew what the letters "OFC" technically stood for, but they all assumed it meant Only For Cowboys. Norwegians and Polacks were beer drinkers, but no legitimate white man would go into a bar and slurp sixteen fluid ounces of wheat foam. Beer drinkers were embarrassing. Sometimes Horace felt embarrassed for the totality of culture, and for the role he had played in its creation. "That's why all these modern men are soft," he thought to himself as he looked into the brown-black remnants of his sugar-saturated coffee. "They're all beer-gorged and lazy. They have no grit. They're scared of whiskey. They're scared of the world."
It was time for everyone to roll the dice. Horace rolled a pair of fives. It was not enough to win. His luck was never going to change.
Copyright © 2008 by Chuck Klosterman