Chuck Klosterman is no doubt intimately familiar with characters like those who populate his debut novel, "Downtown Owl." The pop-culture journalist, born in Minnesota but raised on a farm near Fargo, notes that "this story is a non-autobiographical work of fiction." He may now be a New York writer with a cult following, but these characters, that dialogue -- he knows it all, inside out.

His fictional Owl, N.D., is a safe place where nothing happens. At least that's what many of its 800 or so residents are counting on.

Widower Horace Jones asks for nothing more than to join the regulars at the diner for coffee and talk about the weather, high school athletics or the price of spring wheat. But even at 73, he fears being shown up for the dunce he knows he's been.

High school junior Mitch Hrlicka finds Owl a perfect place to weather the torments of adolescence and nurse his hatred for the shaming football coach. Even in fantasies about killing said coach, Mitch's airtight alibi lets him continue life as is, except maybe with a television in his room.

Julia Rabia, a teacher scared into the hinterlands by a term at an inner-city Chicago school, is prepared to resent the boredom. But as the new fish in the small-town fishbowl, she quickly learns to handle the nicknamed bachelors who haunt Owl's seven bars.

Throughout "Downtown Owl," which begins in late 1983, Klosterman examines how that fishbowl effect shapes our actions and our sense of self -- balancing privacy and common knowledge, public responsibility and personal freedom. The recent FBI fight with tax evader Gordon Kahl weighs on the collected consciousness. Meanwhile, every English class in the high school has been assigned George Orwell's "1984." Thinking of the various scandals bubbling to the surface of everyday life in Owl, Mitch reflects that he "had no idea how he knew these things, but he knew them all. ... Everyone knew everything. So how was 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' a dystopia? ... What was so unusual about everyone knowing all the same things?"

Klosterman also effectively uses his time frame to create tension as two characters edge toward an epic fight and the town faces an unexpected threat. In this look at character and choices, we find that Owl is not, in fact, a safe place where nothing happens. People get duped. Fights are instigated. Heroes doubt. Hearts hope. And Mother Nature can be downright nasty.

Kathe Connair is a Star Tribune features copy editor.