Ken Kalfus, Thirst
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
2010, 224 pages, paperback, $16
One of the many remarkable stories in Thirst—originally published in 1998 and recently re-released by Milkweed Editions—follows a New York City man who, by virtue of a space-time tic, has two lives running on parallel tracks. He has two apartments, two jobs, two lovers, two toothbrushes, two colanders. He lives each day twice, waking up every morning in his apartment across town from the one where he fell asleep.
Reading Thirst, one begins to suspect that Kalfus has dreamt of leading such a life, one in which he might wake up and find himself in a new place. Kalfus’s collection reads as a travelogue of settings real and imagined, humdrum and fantastical. He is fascinated by the ephemeral; just beneath the surface, his characters seem utterly bemused about why, how, and whether they exist at all. Hovering about these people is a sense of tragicomic, doomed optimism reminiscent of Kalfus’s epigraph, plucked from As You Like It, which hints at the “humorous sadness” caused by “sundry contemplation of…travels.”
And travel Kalfus does. He is most at home in barren, unfamiliar wildernesses; he makes jungles feel safe and renders shopping malls cruelly inhospitable. In the collection’s title story, he paints a vivid, wrenching picture of Morocco that is yet compellingly attractive, calling it a nation “about to crumble to powder and blow away.” Kalfus seems eager to acknowledge the primal, fearful power of nature, and he seems determined to portray nature’s power as the world’s only known constant. In his stories, humankind can build its shopping malls and cell phone towers while nature stands idly by, and then—with the flick of an ocean, with a long, windy sigh—nature topples it all. Kalfus appears to relish human beings’ insignificance, which only lends more poignancy to those moments where he acknowledges the worth of the human spirit.
Thirst is to some degree a reassertion of nature’s power. Kalfus begins with a story that is completely devoid of natural elements—the dense legalese of a faux contractual document—and goes on to describe characters who struggle with their relationships to nature. “Cats in Space,” a story that calls to mind the flight of Icarus, presents a narrator who accepts his peers’ cruel behavior toward the neighborhood’s stray feline population until one event compels him to act. Another character, impatiently waiting out a winter storm in hopes of returning to Florida—land of golf and networking opportunities—undergoes a strange, sobering epiphany: it will never stop snowing.
This struggle reaches its climax with “No Grace on the Road,” the artful, powerful tale of an Asian military man who has forsaken his folk culture for the science-driven materialism of America. “According to native belief,” recalls the narrator, struck down by a storm—Kalfus likes storms—“man had once walked on all fours and lived a happy life that way in harmony with the other inhabitants of the jungle.” The stories of Thirst regard man from the forest floor, scrutinizing what he has become and whether something elemental has been lost.
Even at Kalfus’s most jovial—when, say, the reader is enjoying ludicrous, spiraling explanations of record-breaking events in baseball’s history—he is given to feints of tone, using neat turns of phrase and impossibly appropriate details to plunge the reader into cool thoughtfulness. In the midst of a familiar, applause-packed, hotdog-scented scene, Kalfus puts a finger to his lips: “Nothing was real. The ball field’s measures were hemmed by the moth-filled night.”
Despite being Kalfus’s debut work of fiction, Thirst is noticeably and gloriously bereft of the usual defects of first books, probably in no small part because Kalfus was 44 years old when it was first published. He does not attempt to cover too much ground; he does not overwrite in efforts to be literary; and he does not experiment for experiment’s sake, but rather because his experiments yield imaginative, fruitful results. His unassuming wisdom salts the collection beautifully, rendering it neither preachy nor overmodest. Above all, he is unafraid, resulting in prose that positively simmers, at once restrained and brazenly confident.
And he is having fun. In “Notice,” the copyright notice parody that begins the collection, Kalfus cobbles together a 118-word sentence informing the reader in hyper-legal, jargon-choked language that permission to copy the book’s contents may be granted under certain circumstances. Following that sentence is this one: “Just drop me a note.” Whether he is joking, questioning, or explaining, Kalfus writes both for the reader and for his own gratification.
In pieces like “Notice” and “Suit,” which sketches a son obliged to buy a suit for his upcoming drug-related court date, Kalfus’s chief aims seem to be entertainment and description. These stories do not overstep their bounds, and they are better for it, inviting the reader along on Kalfus’s short flights of fancy. (“Invisible Malls,” a takeoff of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities,” describes multi-tiered car garages in which customers are “bewitched by the illusion of a parking space,” and food courts peddling Uzbek plov and shark nuggets.) Stories such as “Le Jardin de la Sexualité,” which chronicles a day in the life of a young, virginal nanny working in Paris, are longer and more complex, and function on a number of levels. Kalfus is at his best in these pieces, which, though explorative of serious philosophical issues, are nevertheless compelling for their plots. (The prudish nanny, taking her charges to a museum one afternoon, is pursued by an ardent young scholar whose field is human sexuality.)
It is when Kalfus attempts to operate on a purely symbolic level that he tends to falter. He imbues the text with his usual rich detail, but some amount of vitality is lost. Such is the case in the collection’s final story, “A Line is a Series of Points,” which depicts a group of refugees as they trudge ceaselessly in a single-file line through the desert. Ostensibly, the story is meant—like many in Thirst—to address the interchangeability of lives, the marching on of time, and the befuddling nature of memory and expectations. But such a story, while having much to say and a clever conceit with which to say it, fast becomes uninteresting. Reading it, I felt I had glanced at an hourglass, appreciated its meaning and poignancy, and had been forced to continue gazing at it for ten or fifteen minutes.
Despite these sporadic sharps and flats, Thirst is a collection of harmony—of stories short and long, funny and grief-struck, redemptive and damning. If one of Kalfus’s stories isn’t to your liking, try another—you’ll wake up in a new apartment, listening to a different story, wondering where you put your colander.
Sarah Jane Morrison received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Texas State University. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in Third Coast, R2: The Rice Review, and Front Porch Journal. She lives in Austin, Texas.