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Review: ‘Coup de Foudre’ by Ken Kalfus

Coup De Foudre

By Ken Kalfus

Bloomsbury

277 pages, $26.

By Ed Taylor

Readers who think, “I wish I could find a light and conventional story collection including a long fictional imagining of the sex life of disgraced French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn (who resigned as director of the International Monetary Fund in 2011 after being charged with sexual assault on a hotel maid in New York City; his latest contretemps, a French trial on pimping charges, ended in acquittal in June 2015)?” Your book has arrived. 

Kalfus is the Philadelphia-based author of three novels and two previous story collections, including his well-reviewed first book “Thirst” and probably his best-known work, “Pu 239 and Other Russian Fantasies,” a collection of stories that was turned into an HBO movie. “Coup De Foudre” is a French idiom meaning, baldly stated, an amazing or extraordinary event: or a lightning bolt – as in love at first sight. Remember in “The Godfather II” when the exiled Michael Corleone in the wilds of Sicily meets Apollonia, the Sicilian woman whom he will marry and then see blown up in his car? His Sicilian bodyguards explain the look that passed between them saying, dude, you got hit by the thunderbolt – “fulmine.” That’s the idea here – with the collection prefaced by a quote from “Antony and Cleopatra”: “Some innocents ’scape not the thunderbolt.” Indeed. In a variety of ways, innocents, and the not-so, get whapped here, ranging from the full-on dope slap to more subtle variations.

The book begins with the title novella, a 77-page confession letter from David Leon Landau (see DS-K above) to the African immigrant maid he is charged with assaulting in a New York hotel. Originally appearing in The Atlantic, the novella is a meticulous exploration of the inner life of a rich powerful white late-middle-aged internationally urbane multilingual Viagara-mainlining sex addict politician. It swells, so to speak, to a climax and then declines quietly, as do most of the stories here.

The following stories are divided into two sections: the middle one comprised of seven stories, is “Factitious Airs,” Sir Henry Cavendish’s 18th century term for flammable gases such as hydrogen, which he posited as a kind of artificial or non-natural air – but factitious also means fake, sham: a lie. So there’s complexity here.

The final section, “The Future,” includes eight stories. The overall arc of both sections carries the reader through a fictive world of male speakers and characters in various states of fecklessness, wrestling with issues in their lives, and often with an unrevealed event, or moment, that changed their lives via shame and embarrassment. In style and voice and character and setting and event, the worlds here are familiar and middle-class; and include several focused on writing and writers. There are a few stylistic semi-forays into the unconventional but in safe and mild ways.

Overall, this is a pleasant collection by a pro, shedding pleasant light, if not lightning and thunderbolts.

Ed Taylor