cover image Thirst


Ken Kalfus. Milkweed Editions, $22 (224pp) ISBN 978-1-57131-018-7

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. (June)