Three Stories
  by Ken Kalfus

Madras Press
Third Collection

"Those who sought to take their own lives ahead of time survived their razor blades and nooses and their dives off cliffs, only to be badly hurt and to succumb to their injuries on the correct date anyway."

Reviewed by Alex Thornber

Hollywood has continually looked to literature for inspiration over the years, with good reason, and now Ken Kalfus has written a story worthy of adaptation. The first in this three-story collection, titled The Moment They Were Waiting For, centres around a murderer being executed. The townspeople are anticipating the day, counting down eagerly, purely hoping for the murderous man to exist no more. The real story begins the morning after his execution when the Warden awakes mumbling a future date and time. News spreads through the town and it becomes clear that everyone had awoken to find themselves muttering the date of their death.

Kalfus' story is all at once arresting, engaging, witty, often hilarious, but ultimately highlights, in no uncertain terms, the barbaric nature of the death penalty. Before the execution and subsequent curse the killer is described as being unable to complete a thought in the weeks leading up to his date of execution and fights against every step as he was led to the death chamber, a passage which brought to mind the equally chilling scene in the Clint Eastwood movie Changeling.

This distressed nature and fear of a death not only inevitable but definable is later mirrored in the lives of the townspeople. People begin to imagine the way they might die in an attempt to avoid it; the Warden's wife, told she will die in just four years, believes it to be during childbirth so takes evasive action by getting divorced and moving away only to die of an "affliction, in fact, popularly associated with spinsterhood" anyway. The cursed people do anything they can to avoid the death: moving away, attempting suicide, they even recreated the calendar in the hope of making the prophecy obsolete. Only some are able to take some control by killing themselves on their determined date before anything has a chance of happening to them; it is no hard task to imagine this dystopian world depicted on a big screen.

Kalfus packs in an enormous amount of emotional material in these few pages and what is most impressive, manages to make the story incredibly visual. Despite the nature of the curse being otherworldly or the work of science fiction and fantasy, Kalfus cements the reality of the characters and their lives by the understated and wonderfully observed human emotions.

Kalfus further explores the human desire to understand in a passage of the second story in this collection, Professor Arecibo. The story is compiled of a few "little dramas", as they are described in the story, the most intriguing of which occurs on a train.

The Professor overhears a lady lying about her whereabouts over the phone and begins imagining reasons for her deception. Almost immediately settled on the idea of her orchestrating an affair he dissects her appearance and assigns events to the specific details:
He detects a slight puffiness in her lips, possibly the damage done by a passionate, hurried farewell…
This reads like a train of observation and thought that a writer might make when trying to construct a story, while simultaneously highlighting the nature of human curiosity inside every one of us. It is a deeply interesting passage and one, despite the somewhat leering thoughts of the Professor, which is handled delicately and to great affect. You feel the Professor's curiosity and can detect the subtle dissatisfaction of his own life which manifests into him living vicariously though others actions, even if those actions are imagined.

The passage reveals something a little extra about Kalfus himself, like a condensed vignette of his process, you can imagine Kalfus making similar observations and then twisting and tweaking them into the stories in this collection. It is perhaps then fitting that the last story should be about a young writer.

Regrettably this story, entitled The Un-, doesn't contain half the majesty that the preceding two do. It is a long story that feels even longer than it is about a young man waiting on some acknowledgement of his talent as a writer. Split into two segments and switching between them the story unfolds juxtaposed next to lists of ways you can go crazy wanting to be a writer.

The problem with this story is its length. The first pages of the list are arresting and ring entirely true, speaking as a writer, but it soon becomes uninteresting, likewise with the passages concerning Josh, the young writer. He starts off waiting on the mailman and then muses on his writing and the lives of the editors and various other distractions, all centred around the act of writing and how the desire to be published had taken over his thoughts.

There is a very telling passage, much like the one in the Professor... story, which reads:
…the wall that separated the published from the un-, and that somehow getting over it, around it, or through it was the only worthwhile human endeavour. You could make up a character intent on overcoming this barrier, a character very much like yourself, though perhaps one a touch less delusional.”
Yet, unlike in the Professor.. story, this is too much telling as the whole story reads exactly like what Kalfus is describing here; it feels too much like a personal story, a drawn out catharsis written to occupy time until he, like Josh, gets some mail. It is a writer's kind of story without enough interest to hold the attention of non-writers, and even this writer. Regardless, there are still some wonderful phrases and emotion in this story but they are diluted by too much self-indulgence.

Alex Thornber writes short stories, some of which have been published in places like Metazen, Wilderness House Literary Review and Specter Magazine. He is currently working on a collection of his stories.
Alex's other Short Reviews: "The Collected Stories of John Cheever"

A J Kirby "Mix Tape"

Susan Tepper "Deer and Other Stories"

Darlin' Neal "Rattlesnakes & The Moon"

Tantra Bensko "Watching the Windows Sleep"

James Franco "Palo Alto"

D E Fredd "Dutch Treatment"
find something to read: reviews
find something to read: interviews
find something to read: categories
find something to read: back issues
competitions & giveaways

Ken Kalfus is the author of two novels, The Commissariat of Enlightenment and A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, which was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award. He's also published two collections of stories, Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Read an interview with Ken Kalfus