Ken Kalfus
Washington Square Press ($16)

by Christopher M. Worth

Ken Kalfus brings together in this collection a stunning variety of places, times and characters, weaving a rich and complex picture of the human soul in its most vulnerable predicament—being out of place. Kalfus's protagonists find themselves far from home, returning home, and divided between two homes in nearly equal measure, and the reader is deftly wrenched along with the characters' displacement.

An immensely broad range of settings for the stories gives the collection a sense of sweeping grandeur; they strike a fine balance between ecumenicism and internationalism, achieving a profound unity that most novels could only hope for. Kalfus leads us on tours of the present and past, to places near and far, and, most importantly, within.

Kalfus's language is striking without relying on cheap affectation or clever artifice. "The Republic of St. Mark, 1849" takes place in a Venice besieged by the invading Austrians and Croats and by deadly epidemic. Alessandro, the protagonist, recounts the last days of war and plague in the once-grand city even as he himself dies from cholera. So real is Alessandro's hopelessness that the reader, too, feels the weight of a doomed man in a once-glorious (but now dying) city.

Throughout the collection, the dialogue, too, is entirely convincing, and indeed one of Kalfus's most notable gifts. Though few of the stories rely heavily on dialogue, the voices of his characters are always crystalline, revealing nearly everything about themselves in a way that is just overt enough to be satisfying, but still fraught with enough common human insecurities to seem unerringly authentic.

Kalfus deftly creates characters that are real in the sense that they are more than archetypes—more than simply the manifestation of a particular emotion. They are likable, fairly ordinary people in most cases who find themselves in extraordinary situations. In "Day and Night You are the One," the protagonist is the victim of an odd "sleep disorder" which causes him to fall asleep in his apartment on one side of town and almost immediately awaken in his other apartment on the opposite side. His two lives progress quite nicely until elements of one life begin to bleed into the other.

The narrator of "No Grace on the Road" is an economist returned to the Thailand of his birth who, with his American wife, spends a harrowing night in the height of the monsoon in the humble home of a young couple with a very sick infant. They are unable to convince the couple that they are not doctors, that they have no medicine, and that they in all likelihood cannot help the child. Fighting for survival in the raging storm, Palin finds himself railing against the impossible backwardness of the country he has proudly identified with for his entire life.

Kalfus's style and execution are flawless. He takes the most disparate elements of the human psyche and the world around us and knits together a stunning tapestry of humanity out of place. The only drawback to this collection is, simply, that it eventually comes to an end.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999