"The place doesn't matter. You just live."

Early in Downtown Owl, that advice is given to 23-year-old Julia, who has just arrived in the negligible town of Owl, North Dakota, to teach seventh and eighth grade. Sadly, Owl doesn't have much to offer; Julia's boss promises her that the town boasts "probably the best bowling alley in the region."

The next paragraph starts like this: "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."

Downtown Owl is the first novel from essayist and journalist Chuck Klosterman, whose previous books—Fargo Rock City; Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs; Killing Yourself to Live; and Chuck Klosterman IV—contain some brilliantly funny, smart, and insightful writing about pop culture. But with Downtown Owl, Klosterman has stopped pondering the cultural significance of KISS to instead tell the stories of three normal Americans in 1983, in a town where high school football rules, where people "don't steal cars, even if they are empty and the keys are in the ignition," and where brutal blizzards can freeze absolutely everything.

"I always liked books that were funny and then sad," Klosterman says, speaking to me from his apartment in New York City. "People in the publishing industry will claim that you can't sell books like that. The example they often use is High Fidelity. That was something that was told to me once: 'In High Fidelity, everything works out in the end. You can't have a book that's funny like that and then in the end, the guy is alone.' That's strange, because all the books I like are like that. So I pretty much decided that I'm gonna write a book the way I like it and hopefully at this point, whether or not it's a huge failure or success shouldn't matter that much anymore. I should be able to sustain a career now because of the other books, regardless of how this does."

Klosterman did write his novel exactly how he wanted to: Downtown Owl is frequently hilarious, but there's a tired melancholy in each of the book's three main characters. There's Julia, the most exotic thing to hit Owl in years; Mitch, a lonely high school quarterback; and Horace, a world-weary widower. Klosterman also introduces some of Owl's other denizens, like English teacher John Laidlaw ("He was certainly the finest teacher in Owl, even when you factored in the emotional cruelty and the statutory raping"), or bar regular Disco Ball ("'Misplaced jealousy,' Disco Ball was wont to say. 'That's what destroyed my marriage: misplaced jealousy. That, and the urination.'").

"In non-fiction, the main thing you're hoping is that whatever the principle idea is, that will be the thing [readers] remember," he says. "With fiction, the biggest hope is that [readers] find it entertaining. My main thing was like, 'Well, I have ideas that I want to write about, but mainly I have to concentrate on making sure it's not boring.'"

It's not. Despite the genre shift, Downtown Owl clips along with Klosterman's sharp, pop-savvy instincts. Take the setting: Since the novel begins in '83, Laidlaw makes his students read Orwell's 1984, which inspires a few kids to wonder if there's a connection between that 1984 and Van Halen's album of the same name. When I ask Klosterman if there is, in fact, a link, he isn't feeling it: "I will never know if Edward Van Halen read George Orwell's 1984, but if he did, it did not seem to inform that record," he laughs. "I mean, there's no thought police mentioned in 'Panama.' Top Jimmy's not expressing his angst against the totalitarian state."

Regardless of whether or not it answers essential questions like the one above, the deft, affecting Downtown Owl might be the best thing Klosterman's written yet—so the next question is if he'll be writing more fiction.

"Possibly," he says, noting that he's currently working on a new essay collection. "If I come up with a really good idea, then maybe I will—but it's not like I'll write all novels now. It's just something I wanted to do, at least once."