03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Thirst : A Terrific Debut Short Story Collection by a Peripatetic Quadrogenarian

Ken Kalfus published his first book, 1998's Thirst, at age 44, after years as a professional writer, occasionally publishing stories in various publications, and following his journalist wife to Ireland, Yugoslavia, and Russia, among other places. Most debuts tend to be semi-autobiographical, but this is a collection of short stories, many of which are set in exotic locales, and nearly all of which are preoccupied with some form of lust or longing -- a thirst as spiritual as physical, but in almost all cases dangerous. But he writes with a deft, light touch, a sense of humor cushioning the longing. It's a masterful voice.

The twin notes of humor and longing are telegraphed in the last words of the book's epigraph, from Shakespeare's As You Like It: "My often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness." And he keeps it up throughout. The book opens with "Notice," a parody of the copyright notices that run opposite the title page in most paperbacks -- the ones that begin with "Copyright © 1998" and end with "NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED" -- that rambles into a Proustian memory of ditto ink. That's followed by a pair of stories called "Le Jardin de la Sexualité," where a hyper-sexual Paris serves as the backdrop for a Moroccan rake's seduction of an Irish prude.

He does a remarkable job of mixing high concepts, science fiction and historical fiction, slice of life and genre parody. "Cats in Space" is a remarkable way-we-were story in which a man reminisces about his childhood, when he and his friends would torture cats; "The Republic of St. Mark, 1849" is set in a besieged Venice after the Italian revolutions of 1848. "Night and Day You Are the One" is about a man who lives in parallel universes, waking up in one New York the moment he goes to sleep in the other. Most of the stories are 10-15 pages long (with relatively large text), and in that brief time Kalfus manages to sketch his characters and evoke their exotic world, and then just as quickly leaves it.

He continues his play with genre and style in "The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Quiz," in which made-up facts serve as the template for him to explore the thoughts inside the head of a player in the midst of setting a meaningless record. It's an interesting exercise, but he doesn't make any attempt to tie them together in a narrative, so the stop-start action is only fitfully engaging. "Invisible Malls" is apparently a takeoff on Italo Calvino's novel "Invisible Cities," but it's sort of a one-note gag on a book I've never read, so that also didn't leave much of an impression.

Kalfus's follow-up, 2000's Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies (rating: 80), allowed Kalfus to deepen his technique by setting all his stories in one country. The book got more acclaim, as it was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award, and the titular novella was made into an HBO movie; more recently, his novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country was a finalist for the National Book Award. He's getting more acclaim, but he's the same writer he was at the start: a man capable of just about anything.

Rating: 85

Crossposted on Remingtonstein.