Ken Kalfus’ new novel rings true in a dystopian America


Imagine the ongoing political conflicts in the United States escalating into outright civil war and large numbers of people fleeing and establishing enclaves – “mini-Americas” – in foreign lands. Migrants live in helpless vulnerability; their residence permits can be revoked at any time. But even as they struggle to make sense of their precarious new existence, the divisions that caused their flight resurface in their adopted homes.

It’s the witching hour premise of Ken Kalfus’ all-too-timely new novel, “2 a.m. in little America.” The story takes place mainly in one of these enclaves, in a non-English speaking and nameless country. “It’s not a prediction,” he recently explained to me. “It’s a warning.”

We were enjoying a picnic in the leafy town of Peterborough, NH, where Kalfus, who lives in Philadelphia, was bucolic camped out in an artist residency program. Eager to explore his thinking behind the work, I spent the day with him. He greeted me with a heavy Bronx accent and a summer hat, bug spray in hand.

Review: Ken Kalfus gives readers a disturbing portrait of a humiliated America

The Bronx accent is courtesy of her parents, who are both from the borough. Kalfus was born there in 1954 and grew up on Long Island. He dropped out of New York University — to make time to finish James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” he joked — drove a cab and embarked on a career as a writer.

“2 AM in Little America” ​​is Kalfus’ fourth novel. I started by asking him how he came to the idea. “I was thinking of the Yugoslavs,” he said. In 1991, Kalfus and his wife moved to Belgrade for a one-year stay, and soon after their arrival, war broke out between Serbian nationalists and Croats.

Yugoslavia began to disintegrate – and thus also the idea of ​​Yugoslavia as a union between South Slavs of varying religious and ethnic identities. “I saw how people started to get trapped in their own narratives, their own stories,” he recalls. As the violence escalated, Kalfus also witnessed a mad flight for safety anywhere outside the country. A seemingly permanent diaspora – the mini-Yugoslavia – took root. “My observation at the time was that there was no reason this wouldn’t happen in the United States,” he told me.

Yet it was not before more than a quarter century later, in 2018, Kalfus began writing the novel that became “2 AM in Little America.” He said the trigger, after years of ruminating on “the fragmentation of our public discourse”, was Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency and the fallout that came with it, as long-running tensions in the United States were increasing.

Kalfus finished a first draft in about eight months, gave it to his wife to read as usual, polished the work to his satisfaction – and waited for an editor to bite. At first, no one did: his previous books, including three collections of short stories, were generally critically acclaimed, but none made the bestseller list. (A short story about a Russian scientist was made into the HBO movie “Pu-239”.)

But then came the January 6, 2021 uprising on Capitol Hill: America’s tribal furies shockingly exposed to the world. The novel is sold six days later to Milkweed editions. “It’s dark,” Milkweed editor Daniel Slager told Kalfus agent Christy Fletcher in an email she read to me, “but bright and clarifying too.” Since May, readers have purchased more than half of the 8,000 hardcover copies that have been published, Slager told me, and Milkweed is currently preparing a paperback edition of 10,000 copies.

My interest in “2 A.M. in Little America” ​​was prompted by my fixation as a journalist on the subject of America’s fall from world preeminence. Kalfus and I agree on one central proposition: the American Century, a term coined in 1941 by Life magazine founder Henry Luce, is over. The America of today does not offer an object of emulation but a warning lesson on the perils of endemic polarization.

The American Century presented pride as a national personality trait. In his book, Kalfus points to the opposite of this attribute: self-doubt, which is the defining characteristic of Ron Patterson, the main character and narrator. We meet Ron on the roof of a building in a “foreign town”, at his job repairing security equipment. He is bored, but not at all unhappy, with his monotonous daily life, accepting his tenancy in a mid-rise apartment, “three in a cell-like room, all of us migrants, all still learning the local language, all with probable visa violations.

It’s a familiar description — of how migrants flee today at America, turbulent lands south of the border, for example, could experience life in the United States. Seeing how that might feel on the other side can only make the American reader cringe.

New residency requirements imposed on migrants force Ron to move to another country, and he settles in the story title’s Little America. Except he can’t quite feel a sense of belonging to the Enclave due to an all-pervading atmosphere of suspicion. His confusion under these tense circumstances is inevitable, such as when rival clans interpret his impulsive decision to walk his dog in a particular wasteland as a sign of tribal loyalty of which he actually has none.

There is no mention of Trump in the story and no mention of Republicans or Democrats. Kalfus, a liberal democrat, told me that he did not want to write an explicitly political book. His aim, he said, was to focus on the “experience” of forced migration – to show what such a life might look like down to its most everyday elements.

To drop the book, to plunge back into the rush of tumultuous news of our raucous times, is sometimes to feel the world of “2 AM in Little America” ​​encroaching on real life. A coup attempt, a jaw-dropping investigation into the event with hints that another might be on the way, mass shootings – what new horror will appear on our screens? Is it time to go out?

“You just don’t know where America is going these days,” said a fourth-generation Californian, now resettled in Portugal as part of a growing community of former Golden Staters, recently. Told the Los Angeles Times. “Are we going to fight each other forever?” However, Portugal does not turn out to be a paradise. While native Portuguese blame transplants for soaring house prices, migrants, reports the Times, are “debating how to define themselves” – exactly the dilemma Kalfus poses in his novel.

I told the story to Kalfus. He said part of what it means to be a ‘lost American’ – is how he describes Ron Patterson – is to be stripped of the ‘privilege’ that generations of Americans have considered a right: to have a passport, to go where we want and to do as we see fit. This decline in status may be a rude awakening, but it seems inevitable. “We’re deprogrammed right now,” he said with a sad chuckle.

So what about him: continuing to live in an ever-quarrelsome America or heading for uncertain shores? On July 4, after learning that a gunman had opened fire on a parade in Highland Park, Illinois, “I thought this country was at the end of its tether,” Kalfus told me in Peterborough . “And then I thought, the rope is long enough.” He’s not ready to leave America – not yet.

Paul Starobin, author of “After America: Stories for the Next Global Ageis writing a book about Russia.


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