Ken Kalfus – Thirst (Story Collection)
I chose to read this book after having very much enjoyed the author’s Three Stories from Madras Press, the second series. This collection was first published in 1998, then re-released in 2010 by Milkweed.
I found the collection to be extremely varied in technique and style; most are third-person but some aren’t even narratives, exactly. That’s a good thing. And they’re all weird. Some really weird, some just a little around the edges, maybe. That’s good, too. No navel-gazing man confronting his life misspent, no browbeaten woman finding the courage to change. Or, rather, there is, all over the place, but none of these stories would be characterized as such. There are a few I’d call misses, but overall I found the collection very enjoyable.
“Notice” is, maybe a story, maybe an essay, maybe a preface. This is a wonderful way to start a book of stories, with something that might be one thing but might be another, keeping the reader off balance and puzzled. It’s also very funny, whatever it is. And it reminds me how much the current generation of kids is missing, not having mimeograph papers to sniff. We had duck-and-cover, mimeograph fluid, the JFK assassination. The generation before us had the Depression and WWII. What does this generation find that links them together? Oh, wait. 9/11. Yeah, that kind of trumps everything, doesn’t it. Except there are fifth graders who are learning it, as we learned about Pearl Harbor, as history. I wonder what they’ll find. See how far a three-page not-sure-what-it-is can take you? Favorite line: “NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.”
“Le Jardin de la Sexualite” is a suite of two stories about a young Irish au pair in Paris, eager to experience life. Except she finds Paris a little too much to experience, encountering brassiere advertisements, naked art, and a very nice Algerian (who turns out to be Moroccan) who is suspect, then not. The way these stories are written, I wasn’t totally sure if her perception of sex all around her was her perception (come on, even in Paris, is there that much sex? Isn’t there any clothed art? All she sees are breasts and penises everywhere) or reality. Again, that “what do we have here” feeling, which is odd but quite enjoyable. Her reactions to the Algerian/Moroccan/Tunisian – dangerous, attractive, hostile, attracted – flutter by and morph by the minute. It’s a lovely set of stories. I can’t see them separated, though they are two separate stories.
“The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz” is likewise a “what is this” story. It consists of a set of questions, the answers showing a lot more about human nature than baseball. I don’t particularly like baseball (I was scarred by 20 years in Boston) and I don’t particularly like baseball stories, but this was great. And again I was, as a non-baseball person, unsure as to whether the trivia questions were being truthfully answered or if everything was invention. Turns out, it’s all fictitious, and I suppose a baseball fan would know that. But it doesn’t really matter that much. Favorite line: “He expected to foul off balls to the end of time, forever drawing from the stadium’s supply (the management would have to call for more), forever dispensing souvenirs of this historic event among the game’s spectators. Time had stopped; each foul ball further dilated the moment.”
“Cats in Space” went by me a bit. A child’s-eye retrospective. Made me want to get some helium balloons, just to see if you could launch a cat into space that way. I’ve had cats since 1976, by the way, and my fourth (and last) is now 16. I just didn’t quite hook onto this story. Best line: The title.
“The Republic of Saint Mark, 1849” was another one of those bouncing-in-my-seat-waving-my-hand-over-my-head-“I-know-I-know-pick-me!” story. I vaguely remember reading the first aerial bombardment in wartime used balloons to drop packets of explosives, back a long time ago. I don’t remember the specifics but I won’t argue with Austria vs. Italy in 1849. Again, you’re never quite sure what you’re reading. Not one of my favorites. Favorite line: In Venice, of course, not all the suffering is done by men and women. For example, the still-red roses in the Contessa’s window box are being driven mad by the screams of her rotting gardenias.”
“Night and Day You Are The One” is the story of poor Harrah, who due to a strange sleep disorder leads two parallel lives complete with two apartments, two jobs, and two ladies in his life. Then worlds begin to collide. I enjoyed this tremendously. I remember a movie from some time in the 1980’s, I think, where Kathleen Turner (maybe) couldn’t tell which was real and which was dream, and in one she ended up in prison for murder. I kept thinking of that movie while reading this. Interesting that I can’t remember the name of it. But this story worked, the little details kept it going. I do wish there had been more to the end, but that’s probably just because I’m not sophisticated to appreciate ambiguity. Favorite line: “Harrah did not consider it to his advantage that this sleep disorder allowed him to maintain relationships with two women at once. It was often a nuisance: two birthdays to recall, two sets of personal endearments, and many complications.”
“Among the Bulgarians” changes direction completely; it’s entirely realism. A teenager returns to the US after living with his parents in Bulgaria (under communism – probably in the early 80’s, John Lennon’s murder is mentioned and seems to be recent) for the summer. What’s interesting is that the title is “Among the Bulgarians” yet the story is about him being among his old friends at home again. It’s a wonderful exposition of that old canard about travel being educational, although it isn’t educational in the way one would expect. His mother wants him to write a diary, discussing Bulgaria in various categories (Politics, Art, Sports, etc). This does not hold much interest for him. But he’s very aware of the difference between where he was and where he is. In Bulgaria he notes the Monument, erected by the Communists, that includes a giant black marble sword visible everywhere in the city. Back home he wonders just what store it was that the new Friendly’s replaced. And muses how wrong the poster he brought back for his friend is. It’s not interesting enough to hang, it’s too big. Re-entry adjustment. Being a teenager, he doesn’t articulate it, which I love, because having him articulate it would ruin it. I enjoyed this story tremendously. Favorite line: “…recording his experiences would attenuate them. It would destroy his spontaneity, making him self-conscious. And a journal would replace these images and ideas that were pouring into his brain like sunshine through a skylight with whatever language he clumsily chose to describe them, so that years later he would no longer possess the memory, but merely the inexact words.” Ok, he does articulate his lack of articulation. But that’s it.
“Suit” is another young-person realist story, though it’s written to be a little puzzling initially. Gerard Morton and his father are waiting for Benedict in a men’s clothier. Benedict is going to cost a lot of money. Gerard – a twenty-one year old – has never conceived of going to college, grad school, getting married. He doesn’t seem to have conceived of much beyond getting through the day. The first line is “How about white linen?” which reminds me of the Streets of Laredo and a cowboy so I’m wondering if I have very strange associations (Gerard thinks of it as what Jack Nicholson wore in Chinatown) or Gerard is feeling pretty dead. Benedict’s purpose is revealed later, though it becomes obvious by the second or third page as he runs around the shop picking a suit for Gerard. It’s a wonderful character story that doesn’t look like a character story. And I finally caught on – everything in this book looks like one thing but is probably not. Favorite line: “Benedict was about thirty-five, but his clothes and accessories gave him the appearance of someone much younger whose confidence, grace, and abilities gave him the appearance of someone much older, about thirty-five.” I’m smitten.
“The Weather in New York” is one of the shortest pieces, and one of my least favorites. Son from Florida comes to visit Dad in New York. That’s enough for me right there. Favorite line, slightly paraphrased: Father says, “Florida? Hah! It’s a hot New Jersey.” And so it is. Usually it’s the New Yorker son who visits Dad in Florida. That’s why I like this volume, everything is turned on its head.
“Rope Bridge” could be your typical cheating-husband story but there are several really interesting elements that make it more. Tom and Claire, and young son Adam, go to visit Claire’s friend Lucy. Tom considers that he and Lucy have been flirting a little for years, and he becomes obsessed with having an affair with her, something he likens to crossing a rope bridge. The way this is written – and this is his art – I’m just as unsure as Tom as to whether he and Lucy are actually flirting, or if their brief contacts are accidental. In any event, they end up in bed and in a coitus interruptus scene that works perfectly, little Adam wakes up. Or maybe he’s sleepwalking. In any event, Tom disengages and turns to talk of Star Wars and Star Trek so quickly, it’s miraculous. I’m awed by that scene. Especially since Lucy is “gasping” and tries to keep him from going. It’s really quite good. There’s another interesting scene in which Tom wonders aloud to his wife what color Lucy’s pubic hair might be, if it’s blonde. Claire assures him it isn’t, it’s dark with a bit of reddishness, and this makes me wonder, hmmm, I can’t say that I know the precise color of anyone’s pubic hair (that includes my spouse to whom I was married for 15 years, though that was a long time ago) and how did Claire learn this information and why does she remember it so vividly? Or is she making it up? Again, there’s this off-balance quality throughout that is a wonderful experience, not frustrating like “I don’t understand” but more like, “I wonder if I’m right about this.” Favorite line: it’s quite long, actually, and belongs to Lucy: “When you liked somebody when you were young, you went with them to the movies; it was just a matter of preference. Now you have to live with them the rest of your life. And when you’re younger you think you know this as a fact of life, but you don’t come close to knowing it. So now this is what they mean when they call going to work five days a week – week in, week, out, no spring break, no three-month summer vacation – a grind. So this is what they mean when they complain about getting old. So this is what they mean when they complain about death.” Yes, I get this. When I was a teenager I couldn’t wait to go to work. Real work, not little jobs for neighbors. I was so proud, at 18, to have a desk and a telephone and a typewriter (yes, a typewriter, that’s how long ago it was) and it wasn’t for quite a few years that I realized this wasn’t as much fun as it used to be. And when I was a kid, my aunt would ask me to help her dust and my job would be to dust the legs of the furniture because I could crawl around on the floor without any trouble, and I’d open all the jars, and I’d thread the needles. And now I understand, it wasn’t because she wanted to give me something to do. An excellent story out of what could have been treadworn material.
“Invisible Malls” is an anti-consumerism riff on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and a clever one too. Malls of time, sleep, desire, Memory, and the Dead (who shop without hurrying). My favorite is the Indoor Shopping Mall of Desire 1, where all the wisdom of the ages, not to mention eternal life, is available. But… well, you’ll have to read the story. By itself, probably not worth it.
“No Grace on the Road” has a very different feel, to me; I kept recalling how I felt when I read Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” from In Our Time though that was a long, long time ago. Still, the mix of cultures, the heartbreak, the grim reality, even at times a starkness of language, though nowhere near Hemingway’s, kept occurring to me. At any rate, it’s pure tragedy unmitigated by humor, magic, or wordplay. It’s the story of a French Indochine man who spent most of his life in Paris and the US, married a Columbia grad student, and is back in his native land for military service, required even though he has a high-level job as an economist. They are caught in a monsoon and seek shelter with a native family, whose baby is sick. It’s a clash of cultures, as the military man goes back and forth from science to myth and agonizes over some choices. There is one glaring moment when “the reader” appears, which for me felt like something horrible. I’m sure this isn’t something done by accident – “Oh, I’m going to avoid explaining these Asian ideographs by saying it would be too hard on the reader” – but whatever the reason, the effect on me was enraging. I suppose it sets the entire piece as a diary entry, gives it some metafiction appeal, and I need to get over myself, but I wish the few words weren’t in the story. I would’ve rather read three long, dense pages about the ideographs. Favorite line: the explanation of the title.
“A Line is a Series of Points” goes back to the world stage, and follows a line of refugees who have wandered so long they no longer remember where their home is. I love this story, parable, fable. When one is struggling for survival, it’s hard to see past the present, this minute, today. But no matter how short-term our outlook, we do create a history, even if it’s only available from the outside. And maybe that’s the true horror of exile, we lose entire civilizations. Favorite line: “We believed that we held claim to the sum of the world’s sympathy; that we were paragons of misery; that ages hence poets would employ our travails as a metaphor for all kinds of alienation and displacement. It is unbearable to consider now that there may be another people, in equal or even greater distress, with whom we must share our symbolism.”
All these stories deal with thirst – desire – in one way or another, but then again, virtually any story deals with desire. That’s what a story is, a character wants something and struggles to get it. For me, the unifying factor was was more about “Just what is this here?” I’m very glad I read this book. I also have his novel A Disorder Peculiar To The Country” and will get to that shortly.