America’s doom, with civil unrest, expats looking on in humiliation, and citizens of other countries relishing the fall of the once-mighty country, is the grim scenario that Ken Kalfus imagines in his latest novel, “2 AM in Little America.” Whichever side one takes on the problems besetting America, readers familiar with his work will likely agree on this point: Kalfus is a perceptive fellow. Whether I’m writing about Russia and radiation poisoning in “Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies,” 9/11 in “A Disorder Peculiar to the Country,” or Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s 2011 saga in “Coup de Foudre “, Kalfus has a knack for getting to the heart of current affairs and presenting issues provocatively.
If anxiety is a state you want literature to engender in you, or you just like a challenging read, you’ll be happy to hear that Kalfus succeeds again, this time with a quietly dystopian novel that presents a haunting portrait of a humble America as seen. through the eyes of a migrant who is an unreliable narrator.
Review: ‘A Peculiar Country Disorder’ 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 dirty “half cinder block building” with other men and does “semi-menial” work fixing security equipment in office buildings.
On a job, he’s repairing a roof system when he inadvertently looks out a window and sees a woman taking a shower. She soon finds out that her name is Marlise, and she looks a lot like a classmate from high school. When he sees her again on the street, he knows it’s her, even though she looks like a different person.
That’s just the first of many uncertainties that populate the narrative. When Ron’s new country passes strict immigration laws, he and Marlise leave for a different country. A decade later, Ron has moved on once more and finds himself confined to an enclave of dilapidated buildings called Little America. Once again, Ron finds a job maintaining security equipment. He hopes this will be his last relocation.
But politics intervenes. Americans in the enclave become as divided as they had been at home. A student protest turns so violent that the military has to suppress it. Rival militias are formed. A detective turns Ron into an informant. And Ron meets more residents who seem like people from his past, possibly including that high school classmate.
Sometimes Kalfus is too shy. A great way to build tension is withholding information, but a great way to destroy it is to stretch out a mystery for too long. Some readers may feel that Kalfus waits longer than he should before making the contours of America’s misdeeds more definable.
And he tends to make some points too obvious, as when he writes about certain media outlets presenting disturbing “exposures” of “how our countrymen have been manipulated” by movies, TV shows, soap operas, and newspapers. As a result of these missteps, “2 AM in Little America” often feels like the literary equivalent of a fancy coffee table with one leg a little shorter than the rest: well built but lopsided.
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However, readers receptive to its qualities won’t mind a little wobble here and there, nor will the occasional lapse lessen the resonance of lines like “A roughly equal number of atrocities were committed.” not committed by both sides,” or that the problem arose from “one-sided self-serving distortion of American history.” Once it begins, “2 AM in Little America” gains considerable momentum on its way to a satisfying if uncertain conclusion.
Midway through the narrative, Ron notices physics devices at one of the schools where he services equipment that remind him of the camera obscura that his physics teacher, Mr. Strauss, had demonstrated.
“We don’t see anything directly,” Strauss had said. The world is real, but “you have to recognize how our perception tools work, how they limit, what they distort, what they amplify, what they diminish and what they leave out.” As this demanding novel makes chillingly clear, distortions and lack of clarity can make for interesting photographs, but in everyday life they can lead to damaging intransigence and horrible beliefs. Put them together, and that’s how hostilities begin. Hate is a bad look.
Michael Magras is a freelance book reviewer. His work has appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Economist, and the Times Literary Supplement.
Milkweed Editions; 256 pages; $25
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