Thirst by Ken Kalfus

The first collection…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Ken Kalfus has become one of my favourite authors in recent years, and I’m gradually working my way through his earlier works. This collection of short stories was his first publication, so I was prepared for it to perhaps be less polished than his more recent stuff. And, indeed, I found it very variable, with only around half of the stories rating as good or excellent, and some of the rest being really rather poor. It reads to me as if he was maybe still searching for a style, trying things out, some of which worked better than others. His trademark humour, insight and precise prose are already there, but many of the stories are too insubstantial to be satisfying.

I’ve read both of his later collections, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies and Coup de Foudre, both of which I loved, and I think the major difference is that the stories in them tend to have a more political edge or be more clearly about that nebulous thing we call the “human condition”, even when he’s being whimsical. So, on the one hand, I found this collection a little disappointing but, on the other hand, it was interesting to see this early stage in his development towards becoming a master of the short story form, as he undoubtedly now is.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I most enjoyed:

Suit – a teenage boy and his father are in a men’s outfitters looking for a suit for the boy. It’s for a particular occasion, although we don’t know what. We only know the father is not pleased about it. They are joined by a third man, and together the three reject every suit the poor assistant shows them – too smart, too casual, too old, too preppy, etc. It is only when the harassed assistant asks what the occasion is that we finally have confirmed what we have gradually come to suspect… This is whimsical and humorous but it’s very well done, and gives a light-hearted commentary on a specific aspect of privilege, about which I can’t be clearer without spoiling the story.

Night and Day You Are the One – a rather strange story about a man who is living two lives, inadvertently shifting between them each time he falls asleep. In each life he has a different home and a relationship with a different woman. Neither of these women knows about his other life, and indeed, it’s not clear if the two lives are real or if the man is suffering from some kind of delusion. In essence, it’s a love story, but done with a lot of originality and with a nicely satisfying ending.

Among the Bulgarians – this was my favourite story. A teenage boy has spent the summer in Bulgaria with his parents. Now he’s home, and in the narcissistic way of teenagers, he assumes the world will have stood still in his absence, his friends waiting impatiently to hear all about his adventures. But he’ll learn that they have had their adventures too – normal teenage ones, dating, and learning to drive and so on – and to them his Bulgarian experiences are only of mild interest. It’s a coming-of-age tale, beautifully done, and with the suggestion that the boy may have been inspired over the course of this summer to take a first small step towards becoming a writer. I wondered, as I often do with Kalfus, if it had an autobiographical element.

So enough in there to make the collection worth reading, but it wouldn’t be where I would suggest any newcomer to Kalfus should begin. I’m glad I’d read his later stuff first, since I may not have been tempted to investigate further if this had been my introduction to his work. But I recommend it for existing fans, since it’s always interesting to see how a favourite author started out.

Book 11 of 20

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24 thoughts on “Thirst by Ken Kalfus

  1. It certainly does sound like a mixed bag, FictionFan. I think that’s probably the case for a lot of short story collections, even when one really likes the author’s work. What I like about the stories you enjoyed the most is that they very – it’s a real assortment, which I always appreciate.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s one of the things I like about Kalfus’ collections in general – the variety, not just of stories, but of tone and style. He does everything from quite hard-edged political stuff to delightfully humorous whimsy with equal skill. Sadly he’s not very prolific, so I’m running out now… I may write a letter of complaint! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve never read any Kalfus, but as he is one of your favorite authors, there is every possibility I may like him too. Where would you suggest is the best place to start? There is certainly a lot to be said for watching the artistic development of a favorite writer, and finding shaids of brilliance even among his or her more immature efforts.

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    • The first book of his I read and the one that turned me into a fan was Equilateral – a kind of take on an early science fiction novel. It has all kinds of stuff in it, about Victorian attitudes to women, and colonialism – some humour, a little romance, and somehow he manages to be quite poetic about maths! Oh, and Martian aliens! Or if you’re in the mood for short stories, his most recent collection Coup de Foudre, is excellent – every story got at least four stars from me, most of them five. He’s hard to define since he writes everything from political stuff to delightful whimsy, but his prose is wonderful. 😀

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  3. When I first saw this, it threw me off! I have a non-fiction book by the same title on my wish list, highly recommended by a friend.

    You’ve really piqued my curiosity with the “Suit” story, but I already have too many short story collections to get through before I add more.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ha, it always amazes me when I search for a book on Goodreads to find out how many titles have been re-used, sometimes loads of times!

      I thought Suit might be available online but sadly I can’t find it. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I haven’t read Kalfus, but thanks for your recommendation to start with his later works. I’m sorry this one disappointed you for the most part, FF, but golly, isn’t it interesting to read some of these authors’ early stories and see their progression for ourselves?!?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, on the whole I really prefer to get to know an author through later books and then work backwards, because most of them improve a lot over the first two or three. Kalfus’ most recent collection, Coup de Foudre, is great if you ever fancy trying him. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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