America’s retribution, with civil unrest, expats gazing in humiliation, and citizens of other countries relishing the downfall of this once mighty country, is the grim scenario Ken Kalfus envisions in his latest novel, “2 AM in Little America”. Whichever side you take on the issues plaguing America, readers familiar with his work will likely agree on this point: Kalfus is a shrewd guy. Whether he writes about Russia and radiation poisoning in “Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies,” about 9/11 in “A Disorder Particular to the Country,” or about the 2011 Dominique Strauss-Kahn Saga in “Coup de Lightning”, Kalfus has a gift for getting to the heart of the news and presenting the issues in a provocative way.
If anxiety is a state you want literature to engender in you, or if you just enjoy a stimulating read, you’ll be happy to know that Kalfus succeeds again, this time with a quietly dystopian novel that presents a disturbing portrait of ‘a humiliated America as seen through the eyes of a migrant who is not an entirely reliable narrator.
Review: “A Country Peculiar Mess” by Ken Kalfus
The book is set in one of the most popular time periods for fiction: the not-too-distant future. In an unnamed country, Ron Patterson, an American migrant, lives in a grungy “cinder block midrise” with other men and does “semi-menial” work fixing security equipment in office buildings.
While on a job, he is fixing a system on the roof when he inadvertently looks out a window and sees a woman taking a shower. He soon learns that her name is Marlise and that she looks a lot like a classmate from high school. When he sees her again in the street, he knows it’s her, even if she looks like another person.
This is only the first of many uncertainties that populate the story. When Ron’s new country passes stricter immigration laws, he and Marlise each leave for a different country. A decade later, Ron has moved on again and finds himself confined to an enclave of dilapidated buildings nicknamed Little America. Again, Ron finds work maintaining safety equipment. He hopes this will be his last move.
But politics intervenes. Americans in the enclave are becoming as divided as they were at home. A student protest becomes so violent that the army has to put it down. Rival militias form. A detective turns Ron into an informant. And Ron meets more locals who look like people from his past, including, maybe, this high school classmate.
Sometimes Kalfus is too shy. A great way to create tension is to withhold information, but a great way to destroy it is to prolong a mystery too long. Some readers may think that Kalfus is waiting longer than he should before making the outlines of America’s misdeeds more definable.
And he tends to make certain points all too obvious, like when he writes about some news outlets that give disturbing “exposures” of “how our countrymen have been manipulated” by movies, TV shows, novels – and newspapers. As a result of these missteps, “2 AM in Little America” often feels like the literary equivalent of a sleek coffee table with one leg slightly shorter than the rest: well constructed but unbalanced.
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Still, readers receptive to its qualities won’t mind a bit of wobble here and there, nor will occasional gaps lessen the resonance of lines such as “A roughly equal number of atrocities have summer do not committed by both parties”, or that the problem resulted from “the self-serving distortion of American history by a single party”. Once launched, “2 AM in Little America” picks up considerable momentum en route to a satisfying if uncertain conclusion.
Midway through the story, Ron notices physics devices at one of the schools where he maintains equipment that reminds him of the camera obscura box his physics teacher, Mr. Strauss, had shown.
“We don’t see anything directly,” Strauss had said. The world is real but “we must recognize how our tools of perception work, how they are limited, what they distort, what they amplify, what they diminish and what they omit”. As this demanding novel makes it chillingly clear, distortions and lack of clarity can produce interesting photographs, but in everyday life they can lead to damaging intransigence and horrifying beliefs. Put them together, and that’s how hostilities begin. Hate is a bad look.
Michael Magras is a freelance literary critic. His work has appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Economist, and Times Literary Supplement.
milkweed editions; 256 pages; $25
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