Kalfus, Ken 1954–

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Kalfus, Ken 1954–

PERSONAL:

Born April 9, 1954, in Bronx, NY; son of Martin (a businessman) and Ida Kalfus; married Inga Saffron (a journalist), May 2, 1991; children: Sky. Education: Attended Sarah Lawrence College, 1972-74, and New York University, 1974-76.

CAREER:

Journalist and author, 1990—.

AWARDS, HONORS:

National Book Award nomination, 2006, for A Disorder Peculiar to the Country.

WRITINGS:

(Editor and author of introduction) Christopher Morley, Christopher Morley's Philadelphia, illustrated by Walter Jack Duncan and Frank H. Taylor, Fordham University Press (Bronx, NY), 1990.

Thirst (stories), Milkweed Editions (Minneapolis, MN), 1998.

Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies (stories), Milkweed Editions (Minneapolis, MN), 1999.

The Commissariat of Enlightenment: A Novel, Ecco (New York, NY), 2003.

A Disorder Peculiar to the Country: A Novel, Ecco (New York, NY), 2006.

SIDELIGHTS:

Journalist Ken Kalfus grew up in Long Island, New York, but has lived around the world in locations as diverse as Belgrade, Dublin, and Moscow. Accordingly, his debut collection of short stories, titled Thirst, offers an eclectic and varied treat for the reader, according to several reviewers. Kalfus was contacted by Milkweed Editions when an editor there read Kalfus's writing in Harper's. In response to the editor's request, Kalfus submitted several stories, and the editor's choices were published in book form. According to critic Mary Ann Grossmann of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the author's stories reflect his international experiences. Voice Literary Supplement critic Dwight Garner commented on the author's outlook, concluding that Kalfus is the "rare writer whose travels haven't colored his prose with cosmopolitan cynicism." Garner compared Kalfus to Hemingway in his ability to "let moments speak for themselves."

Thirst, according to Grossmann, contains the common themes of human dislocation and situational uncertainty. Kalfus admits that uncertainty is central to both his writing style and personal outlook. Grossmann joined other critics in finding the theme of uncertainty particularly effective in the short story "A Line Is a Series of Points." The story allows readers a glimpse into the psyche of refugees who have been homeless for so long that wandering has become a way of life; it is based on Kalfus's observations of Muslim refugees who had been forced out of a Bosnian village by Serbs. Kalfus was struck by the sense of denationalization that he observed, and the sense that such people could have "come from anywhere."

A Publishers Weekly reviewer praised Thirst for being "skilled and versatile" and for alternating between "postmodern playfulness and darker realism." This reviewer liked the daring aspect of some of the stories, as well as the element of surprise in the collection. Among the stories are "Cats in Space," which features suburban teenagers who set a cat adrift in a hot air balloon and later rescue the animal; "Night and Day You Are the One," which features a sleep-deprived character who walks back and forth between two different worlds in the same city; the title story, which finds an Irish au pair and a Moroccan student becoming romantically involved in Paris; and "The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivia Quiz," which suggests deeper meanings behind sports statistics.

Applauding Kalfus for subtly showing the reader that "sometimes the really significant truths are those found closest to home," Garner called Thirst the most effective debut book he had seen in a year. James Held of the Philadelphia Inquirer advised the reader to "unexpect the expected," and gave the author credit for capturing the humor inherent in our pursuits of deeper questions, such as "knowing and being." Ron Carlson, writing in the New York Times Book Review, described Kalfus's style as one where the reader is never completely comfortable and the stories are laced with "fundamental strangeness."

After living in Russia for four years, Kalfus published a second collection of five short stories and one novella titled Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies. The stories in this collection take place in Russia at various times between Joseph Stalin's regime and the present. "What is most wonderful about the variety of these stories is Kalfus's restraint," commented Review of Contemporary Fiction contributor Paul Maliszewski. "While Kalfus is an American author, this is not Russia as seen through American eyes," Maliszewski continued. Similarly, Paul Richardson wrote in Russian Life: "It is exceptionally difficult for a foreigner to write fiction about Russia and get it right. Ken Kalfus gets it right. Again and again." In the book's title story, readers meet Timofey, a nuclear engineer who learns that he has absorbed fatal amounts of radiation. In an effort to leave his family with some means of support after he dies, Timofey attempts to sell weapons-grade plutonium on the black market. His clientele, however, ignorantly assume that the powder he offers is an illicit drug. In "Anzhelika 13," a young girl begins menstruating on the day of Joseph Stalin's death and associates the biological event with Russia's mourning.

"Kalfus shows a striking talent for transcultural understanding, and for depicting the very strange," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor in a review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies. "Kalfus is a rare writer of fiction whose passages of description feel like action," wrote Laura Miller for Salon.com. "It's as if he were injecting his readers with a serum that renders them, in a rush, intimately familiar with the texture of the Russian experience," Miller acknowledged. "Hopefully, it won't be long before readers see a novel from this master storyteller," remarked Veronica Scrol in Booklist, and upon hearing of the pending publication of Kalfus's first novel, Miller wrote: "Ah, something at last to look forward to in the next millennium."

The Commissariat of Enlightenment: A Novel begins in pre-revolutionary Russia in the year 1910. Eminent author Leo Tolstoy is dying in a railway station in the small Russian town of Astapavo. Nikolai Grisbin, a young and ambitious cinematographer for a French newsreel company, joins the throng of media that congregate in the tiny town in hopes of capturing on film Tolstoy's last moments on Earth. On the way to Astapavo, Grisbin meets Professor Vorobev, a scientist and embalmer who wishes to embalm Tolstoy's body with his self-proclaimed revolutionary preservation skills, to which he attests by presenting a preserved rat. While in Astapavo, Grisbin meets revolutionary communists Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin. Stalin, who is quietly collecting political allies, convinces Grisbin to use his cinematic skills for propaganda purposes. After the revolution and Lenin's rise to power, in the year 1919, Grisbin changes his name to Astapov and goes to work for the Commissariat of Enlightenment, a Russian agency dealing in political propaganda. Here Grisbin truly realizes the dark power of film as he takes part in manipulating and controlling images and stories, ultimately determining what will become Russia's political history. When Lenin is close to death, Professor Vorobev is called on to preserve his body. The novel ends at the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"Told in supple, witty prose, the story exhibits all the vigorous intelligence and vision readers have come to expect from Kalfus," stated a Publishers Weekly reviewer of The Commissariat of Enlightenment. "It's not moral complexity or clashes of opinion that interest Ken Kalfus, but the driving force of single ideas, the questioning, gives a relentless impetus to the narrative that makes this novel compelling to read," remarked Barry Unsworth in the New York Times Book Review. Unsworth continued: "Some scenes of action and description are realized so vividly that they almost have the force of hallucination." In the Houston Chronicle, Evan Miles Williamson revealed one of the novel's problems: "Rather than let the reader draw conclusions from the events being dramatized, Kalfus repeatedly clubs readers over the head with his thesis: History is manipulable, and our culture is controlled by the propaganda machines of the media." Summing up popular opinion of the book, and making the prevalent comparison of Kalfus to revered Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, a Kirkus Reviews contributor called the book "a brilliant fusion of satire, science fiction, and political commentary," adding, "Gogol is probably tearing his hair out, wishing he'd dreamed this up." Remarking on his development as a writer since the publication of Thirst, Kalfus revealed to Garner in a Salon.com interview, "I certainly felt that when I was writing those stories that aiming for spareness in my work was a way of avoiding screwing it up with things that weren't relevant. I think my style has become a bit more lush. I think I'm more confident."

The theme that runs through A Disorder Peculiar to the Country: A Novel is hate, represented by how hate is expressed by Joyce and Marshall Harriman toward each other. Headed for divorce, both are elated on September 11, 2001—she because his office is high in the south tower of the World Trade Center, and he because he thinks she is on Flight 93. Neither have died, however, and they live through a volatile year before their divorce is finalized. Washington Post reviewer Jonathan Yardley commented: "Marriage as metaphor for larger conflict is scarcely new, but Ken Kalfus has put a new and singularly imaginative twist on it." Elizabeth Kiem wrote in a review for the San Francisco Chronicle Online that this story "juxtaposes New York's anxiety in the months after the disaster with the downward spiral of a disintegrating marriage. It's an analogy that asserts itself bluntly and relentlessly."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Bloomsbury Review, September, 1999, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 13.

Book, March-April, 2003, Beth Kephart, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment: A Novel, pp. 78-79.

Booklist, August, 1999, Veronica Scrol, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 2027; January 1, 2003, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment, pp. 847-848; June 1, 2006, Frank Caso, review of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country: A Novel, p. 37.

Choice, March, 1999, review of Thirst, p. 1266.

Entertainment Weekly, February 14, 2003, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment, p. 76.

Esquire, November, 1999, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 82.

Harper's, February, 2003, John Leonard, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment, pp. 67-68.

Hungry Mind Review, fall, 1999, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 32.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1999, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 1074; December 1, 2002, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment, p. 1720; May 1, 2006, review of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, p. 429.

Library Journal, August, 1999, Jim Dwyer, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 144; June 1, 2006, Joshua Cohen, review of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, p. 108.

New Statesman, August 21, 2006, Natasha Tripney, review of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, p. 51.

New York, July 17, 2006, Daniel Asa Rose, review of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, p. 64.

New Yorker, November 22, 1999, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 202; August 7, 2006, review of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, p. 89.

New York Times Book Review, July 26, 1998, Ron Carlons, review of Thirst, p. 9; September 26, 1999, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 10; October 3, 1999, review of Thirst, p. 104; December 5, 1999, reviews of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 77, and Thirst, p. 105; February 2, 2003, Barry Unsworth, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment.

Philadelphia Inquirer, June 28, 1998, James Held, review of Thirst.

Publishers Weekly, April 27, 1998, review of Thirst, p. 45; July 12, 1999, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 72; January 6, 2003, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment, p. 37; April 3, 2006, review of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, p. 34.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 2000, Paul Maliszewski, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 183; summer, 2003, Tim Feeney, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment, p. 138.

Russian Life, January, 2000, Paul Richardson, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 58.

St. Paul Pioneer Press, August 30, 1998, Mary Ann Grosmann, review of Thirst.

Times Literary Supplement, July 9, 1999, review of Thirst, p. 23.

Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1998, Dwight Garner, review of Thirst, pp. 73-74.

Washington Post, August 1, 2006, Jonathan Yardley, review of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, p. C3.

Yale Review, October, 2001, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, p. 129.

ONLINE

Houston Chronicle Online,http://www.chron.com/ (March 23, 2003), Eric Miles Williamson, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment.

Mostly Fiction,http://mostlyfiction.com/ (December 27, 2006), Mary Whipple, review of The Commissariat of Enlightenment.

Philadelphia Inquirer Online,http://www.philly.com/ (November 14, 2006), Bruce E. Beans, review of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country.

PIF,http://www.pifmagazine.com/ (December 27, 2006), Ryan Boudinot, "Interview with Ken Kalfus."

Salon.com,http://www.salon.com/ (December 27, 2006), Laura Miller, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, Dwight Garner, "The Salon Interview: Ken Kalfus."

San Francisco Chronicle Online,http://sfgate.com/ (July 21, 2006), Elizabeth Kiem, review of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country.

Seattle Times Online,http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/ (December 27, 2006), Mark Lindquist, review of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country.

SignOnSanDiego.com,http://www.signonsandiego.com/ (July 23, 2006), Gordon Hauptfleisch, review of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country.

Stranger Online,http://www.thestranger.com/ (December 27, 2006), Evan Sult, review of Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies.

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Kalfus, Ken 1954–

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