I’ve known of Ken Kalfus for a long time. A fellow Philadelphian (or is that phellow Philadelphian?), he shows up at a lot of the readings I attend at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and he’s friendly with a couple of writers I know. Kathye Fetsko Petrie introduced me to him at a Jonathan Safran Foer reading, and Josh Emmons once invited me to join them for tennis. The reason I declined — aside from lacking any tennis skills whatsoever — also accounts for why my one and only meeting with Kalfus was so awkward: I’d never read any of his books. Until now.
I was browsing the shelves at Farley’s Bookshop in New Hope, Pennsylvania, when I spotted Three Stories, a tiny book from Madras Press. I couldn’t resist making the purchase largely because reading the book would give me something to say to the author the next time I ran into him, but also because proceeds from book sales go to support the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is where I’ll probably run into the guy. How could I not buy it?
The book, it turns out, is spectacular and makes me realize that I’ve been missing out on some great writing by not looking into the fiction of Kalfus sooner. The first story of the collection, “The Moment They Were Waiting For,” offers a meditation on free will. In it, the denizens of a city are cursed with the knowledge of the exact dates on which they will die — and regardless of the measures they take, their fate is inescapable. In the second tale, “Professor Arecibo,” an academic with a bad reputation overhears a telephone conversation about himself and struggles to deal with the resulting emotional fallout. In the third, “The Un-,” a young writer named Josh Glory yearns for publication and the recognition he imagines will come with it.
For my money, this last story alone is worth the $7.00 I paid for the 68-page collection. As a writer myself, I fully identified with all of the anxieties that make Josh Glory tick. “You could go crazy as you ascended the ladder of literary disappointment,” Kalfus writes. “You could be disappointed that you hadn’t written anything. You could be disappointed that what you’d written hadn’t been published. You could be disappointed that you’d been published but hadn’t sold many books.” The list goes on and on, and every writer in every stage of his or her career will identify with at least some element of the story. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that “The Un-” should be required reading for anyone considering a “career” in creative writing.
The collection as a whole has an engaging, subtly Kafkaesque tone that amuses even as it offers a dark vision of humanity. We are all struggling with a multitude of things that can drive us crazy, each story in the collection seems to say, and the only way to deal with the maddening crush is to keep on living one day at a time.
Needless to say, I highly recommend this book, and I’ll be seeking out other books by Ken Kalfus in the very near future. With any luck, I won’t get tongue-tied the next time I run into him.