cover image Equilateral


Ken Kalfus. Bloomsbury, $24 (224p) ISBN 978-1-62040-006-7

Egypt’s Western Desert in the 1880s provides the setting for this slyly satirical novel from National Book Award finalist Kalfus (A Disorder Peculiar to the Country). Convinced that intelligent life exists on Mars, famous astronomer Sanford Thayer has won worldwide backing to excavate an enormous equilateral triangle from the desert as a signal to the Martians. But a workforce of nearly a million Arab laborers, or fellahin, working toward a goal in which they don’t believe, combined with the arrogance of their British overseers, make for a combustible mixture. Thayer battles malingering illness as his self-imposed deadline approaches, while his chief engineer, Wilson Ballard, keeps the men in line with increasingly harsh methods, only partly tempered by Thayer’s trusted longtime secretary, Miss Keaton. Past romantic history between the two, coupled with Thayer’s new interest in Bedouin servant girl Bint, produces another kind of triangle. Kalfus wittily skewers the Europeans’ cosmic fantasies before reaching the ambiguous ending, which somewhat strains credibility but befits the story’s equal attention to the wonder of prospective first contact and absurdity of human self-delusion. Agent: Christy Fletcher, Fletcher & Co. (Apr.)