The many voices of Ken Kalfus

Laura Miller reviews Ken Kalfus's short story collection, 'Thirst'.

By Laura Miller
Published July 23, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The average short-story collection, especially when it's a writer's first book, is usually a cautious thing, an array of carefully crafted variations on a theme or two, a place, a social class, an emotion. Ken Kalfus' extraordinary first book, "Thirst," starts out like this, with two stories ("Bouquet" and the title story) that sketch the confounding of a repressed Irish au pair in Paris as she encounters a seductive Algerian boy.

But those stories are followed by "The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz," a mock Q&A in which routine questions about baseball stats lead into a series of mysterious anecdotes in which the game itself dissolves and becomes meaningless in the face of chance and human perversity. That's followed by "Cats in Space," a tale about the random cruelty of children and the stealthy encroachment of conscience set in a Northeastern suburb; "The Republic of St. Mark, 1849," about a dying Venetian merchant who flees the besieged city in a balloon; and the peculiar "Night and Day You Are the One," in which an import/export businessman wakes up in one of two alternate lives every morning, one on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and the other on the Upper West.

The scope of "Thirst" keeps expanding with each story: Here Kalfus deftly executes a realistic depiction of the vacillations of a young husband contemplating adultery with his wife's close friend, there he's spinning a Borges-like fable about a tribe of refugees who have been on the road so long their nomadism has evolved into a culture of its own. Miraculously, he's at home in all of these modes and with each of these voices, and his own virtuosity hasn't given him a swelled head, just the eagerness to attempt each fresh challenge. Every new American fiction writer has to confront the behemoth of popular culture, if only to purge it from his or her work; Kalfus opts for maintaining a thread of knowing humor throughout, a remarkably unchilly irony. Here's a sample from his funky, clever riff on Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities," which Kalfus has transmuted into a description of a series of fantastical shopping malls, each with a girl's name:

Emma is so upmarket that its boutiques are named for designers that you have never heard of; nor are you allowed to hear of them. If you do learn the names of these designers, Emma's security commandos abduct you to a secret location within a remote discount store and chemically induce memory loss. If the commando team fails (induced memory loss is still a developing field), the shop goes out of business and is replaced by a store dedicated to an even more exclusive designer, selling clothes at prices too high to be pronounced by the human voice.

Another mall is stocked with golden fleeces and holy grails (all priced just out of reach), another has no parking lot ("Would-be shoppers drive around it for hours ... allow themselves to be entertained by their car radios, snack on whatever provisions they have brought with them, and then return home"). And yet another, "located in a subterranean fissure," is "patronized exclusively by the dead." So much for Kmart realism. "Invisible Malls" marries European literary fabulism and American social satire as happily as Astaire was paired with Rogers.

The real stunner in this collection, though, is "No Grace on the Road," in which all of Kalfus' diverse writerly strengths are summoned to create a potent corker of a story. Told by Palin Ni Lap, a European-schooled economist from a small, unnamed South Asian country, stranded with his American wife in a peasant family's hovel during a monsoon, it seethes with the complex rage, pride and frustration of an educated third world aristo who can't find an easy place for himself at home or abroad. Palin sees with the painful clarity of a perpetual outsider, whether he's looking at his own people ("My soldiers did not want to kill as much as they wanted to spend their ammunition; a few rounds of bullets at three piastres a shot would be the most expensive consumption their lives would ever allow") or his wife's wide-eyed craving for experience ("it made me wonder if I was an object of love or, like much else in this country, merely a detail in the composition of an 'interesting' life").

When Palin gets driven out into the storm in order to retrieve a bottle of Bufferin that might save one of the peasants' children, he plunges into hallucinatory chaos -- "bubbling soil ... as pungent as blood ... the jungle dark as the bottom of the ocean" -- and finds himself naked and humbled, beset by shadows and praying to the tiger god of his homeland. It's a rare writer who can combine keen, grounded, psychological observation with visionary headiness, who can make you feel a character's acute cultural dislocation without ever stooping to lectures -- and an even rarer writer who can meld all of these elements into a sinuous, powerful whole. Kalfus does all of this in a story told from the point of view of a character very different from himself, heartening in this age of autobiographical fiction.

It's exhilarating to discover a young writer with so much range and so little self-consciousness about exploring it. The publication of "Thirst" marks the debut of a major talent.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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