Kalfus veers between whimsical postmodern playfulness and a darker realism in the 14 stories of his skilled, versatile first collection. He demonstrates a sophisticated comic flair, best seen in "The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz," which describes a number of entirely fictional baseball records. Sometimes, however, Kalfus's whimsy gets the best of him, as in "Invisible Malls," a reworking of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, an extended literary joke that wears thin. At the other extreme, some of his forays into more conventional fiction such as "Rope Bridge," about a man's desire for a friend of his wife's are a bit pedestrian. Kalfus is most successful when he mixes his different approaches into the original sort of magic realism he creates in the title tale, which concerns an erotically charged encounter between a virginal Irish au pair, Nula, and a Moroccan student, Henri Tatahouine, in Paris. The hallucinatory quality of Henri's account of his life leaves Nula emotionally blistered, as though she had been in the Sahara. The comic, horrifying "Cats in Space," which tells the tale of a group of kids who use helium balloons to launch a kitten into the air, is similarly effective. Though uneven, Kalfus's collection is ambitious and daring, with smart, fluid prose and an abundance of surprises.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Kalfus's first work of fiction, this collection of 14 tales is an interesting mix of settings, characters, and themes. In "Bouquet," we meet a young Irish au pair who comes face-to-face with her sexuality in a science museum in Paris. Then in the title story, she meets a young Moroccan who explains what it is like to be truly thirsty and exposes her to a world that she has never known. There is a story about a man living a double life - or is he? In "Rope Bridge," a husband, a wife, and their son go to New Hampshire to visit the wife's college roommate, only to have the husband constantly think about having sex with the friend. In the longest story, we meet a foreign officer and his American wife as they face the poverty and hopelessness of his home country in the form of a destitute family and their sick child. The other stories cover such varied ground as Kubla Khan and shopping malls, a young prisoner looking for a suit for court, a high school student's trip to Bulgaria, and a surreal baseball league. Well written and very moving, these stories explore the common themes of love, family, duty, and class in a fresh and open manner so that one comes away with a new perspective on age-old questions. Recommended for all fiction collections. Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH
It's not easy to identify author Kalfus in this debut volume, since its mode, manner, and voice change as with the colors of the chameleon. Perhaps the 14 pieces vary so from having been written over a long a period; many, in any case, are notably less original or adept than others. The ghosts of O. Henry and his legions haunt simple, surprise-ending stories like "Bouquet" (an Irish au pair aghast at the licentiousness of Paris) and "Suit" (a young man being tailored for his appearance in court); others follow the same path but stroll also toward the occult, as in the Jekyll and Hyde "Night and Day You Are the One" and "The Weather in New York" (an apartment-bound man realizing that a snowstorm will never end). Kalfus's least resonant efforts are his most "realistic," as in the suburban tale of boyhood cruelty to animals ("Cats in Space") or the Hemingway-esque effort about coming home again ("Among the Bulgarians"), which lies limp on the page in spite of its echoes of classics like "Soldier's Home." The fellow who lusts after his wife's friend ("Rope Bridge") has far too little to show or tell for himself, and a Thailand-set tale of human tragedy ("No Grace on the Road") becomes clumsy and tendentious. Kalfus's stronger talent lies in less conventional directions the sparkling little essay-pieces of "The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz," for example, or the simultaneously historic, surreal, and lovely "The Republic of St. Mark, 1849"). Even then, Kalfus needs to guard against a debilitating coyness of tone, as in his "Invisible Malls" (Marco Polo explains malls to Kublai Khan), but his inventiveness and lyricism here or in "A Line Is a Series of Points" (entire villages wanderacross the countryside) are his best, and often captivating. A middling mix, with glimmers of real strengths in the offing.
The Village Voice The most potent debut book I've read this year....The stories work something like poison: you touch them to your lips and you're instantly seduced.
David Foster Wallace Ken Kalfus is an important writer in every sense of "important." There are funny, hip writers, and there are smart, technically innovative writers, and there are wise, moving, and profound writers. Kalfus is all these at once, and the stories in
Thirst manage simultaneously to delight, impress, provoke, and redeem. The New York Times Book Review Throughout this collection, the door is open to...unsettling ambiguity; always a tantalizing "perhaps" is in play...Ken Kalfus lights his stories with fundamental strangeness. The displaced figures in Thirst drift through worlds that are at once astonishing and familiar. They'd like to wake up in their own beds after a good night's sleep, but even that blessing would, we suspect, have the word "perhaps" in it somewhere. Salon A dazzling debut....With his amazingly eclectic story collection, Ken Kalfus emerges as a major literary talent....It's exhilarating to discover a young writer with so much range and so little self-consciousness about exploring it. CityPages (Minneapolis/St. Paul) Kalfus' grip on the story is so gentle that the story itself, like an unruly boy soft on the inside, always stays within the author's reach. But in the end, Kalfus surprises you, transports you to a different frame of mind a sharp, clean turn in the story and you're left holding your breath, wondering how you got there.
Robley Wilson This is a dazzle of a book...a kind of literary hit-and-run that keeps sideswiping the reader with surprise and wonder.
Miami Herald Unexpect the expected: good advice for any reader who tends to judge a book by its publicity blurbs, but particularly apropos to Ken Kalfus' first venture into fiction. I can, though, confidently vouch for one thing to expect from Thirst: delight. Boston Book Review An intelligent and playful collection of stories that will move readers by engaging their sense of wonder and joy of exploration....Ken Kalfus resorts to fiction to accommodate what life can't accommodate imaginary meanderings that the physical, phenomenological world makes impossible. He keeps contradictions and ambivalences in abeyance, forcing confrontation of possible and impossible worlds. He uses fiction, among other things, to address problems, without seeking to resolve them. The New York Times Book Review The stories in Thirst come at Ken Kalfus' readers from left of center, from surprising places not located on the banks of the mainstream....The fable "Invisible Malls" is a delicious fantasy......
Paper magazine Playful, moving short stories about travel, childhood, and loss, from a writer who does almost everything well.