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Ken Kalfus' "Thirst"

By Steven Robert Allen

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  It's no accident that this collection of short stories ends with "A Line Is a Series of Points," a short, murky fable about travel and movement. In this story, a line of refugees moves across the sand, far from home, toward a destination they cannot name or visualize. They never reach this destination, and when they return to the place they thought was home, the street names are unfamiliar, the climate is drier than they remembered, the macaroni is overcooked, and the jokes just don't seem all that funny anymore.

Ken Kalfus is a traveler. He has lived in New York, Dublin, Paris and Moscow. Over the years, he's done more than his fair share of trotting the vast green globe. This carpetbagging lifestyle informs almost every aspect of his fiction. The stories in Thirst are populated by foreigners and aliens of all stripes. The action often takes place in exotic locales. And the narrative conflict often revolves around feelings of displacement and an inability to belong.

Last year, Thirst was lauded everywhere as one of the year's finest fiction collections -- all the more remarkable for the fact that it is Kalfus' first. Now that the collection has been released in paperback, we poor folks can finally find out for ourselves just what all the fuss is about.

As everyone knows, the American Short Story has been dying a slow death for a long time. Gone are the days when every commercial magazine in the United States provided a venue for fiction writers. Only a handful of magazines continue to publish short stories, and even old standbys like The New Yorker have dramatically cut back the space they're willing to devote to fiction. The problem is that people just don't seem to read the stuff anymore, and it's no longer commercially viable to print it in commercial media.

Yet of late there have been whisperings of a quiet renaissance of sorts. Ken Kalfus is one of a group of short fiction writers that has turned the form on its head, experimenting with new storytelling strategies and structures, and in the process, reclaiming some of the American Short Story's old vibrancy.

Kalfus may have spent a lot of time abroad, but make no mistake: He is a quintessentially American writer. He writes about other cultures with the eye of an outsider. The stories in Thirst that are set in America exhibit the bewilderment of a man who has been away from home for a long while, maybe too long. Like the unnamed narrator in "A Line Is a Series of Points," Kalfus, too, seems confused by the street signs and overcooked macaroni -- and he doesn't really get the jokes. In both "Le Jardin de la Sexualité" and "Among the Bulgarians," Kalfus paints detailed, humorous portraits of characters outside their element, interacting with alien beings they cannot comprehend. These stories suggest that the concept of "home" is itself illusory, and the experience of traveling only makes our awareness of this illusion that much more obvious.

Yet at the same time, Kalfus' life on the road seems to have brought him a new appreciation for America and a new sense of wonder at what makes America unique. In one of his finest stories, "The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz," he offers us an alternate history of the national pastime. Something about this game, of course, has always made it an ideal literary subject. In the rich tradition of Ring Lardner and Bernard Malamud, Kalfus mines the drama and mystique of baseball, and in doing so, manages to evoke the joy, melancholy and oddity of life in 20th-century America.

Not all of these stories satisfy, but at least Kalfus has dared to take a few chances. Every story in Thirst adopts a radically different voice and narrative structure. Kalfus is always willing to experiment and is confident enough in his abilities that his experiments often bear fruit. He's a creative writer in the most flamboyant sense. Expect a new collection by Kalfus, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies: A Novella and Stories, to offer more strange surprises. Or as Kalfus himself says, "Unexpect the expected." Either way, your monkey's getting shocked.

(Washington Square Press, paper, $12.95)

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