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Review | Ken Kalfus gives readers an unsettling portrait of a humbled America

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Schadenfreude is a bad look, but one gets the feeling many people around the world see the United States headed for a reckoning and aren’t necessarily upset about it. The prospect of a second civil war, posited in think pieces and doomsday tweets, may or may not be likely, but the very discussion says something about the hardening of the nation’s internal divisions, and, to some people, the deliciousness of comeuppance.

The chastening of America, with civil unrest, expatriates looking on in humiliation, and citizens of other countries savoring the once mighty country’s downfall, is the grim scenario Ken Kalfus envisions in his latest novel, “2 A.M. in Little America.” Whichever side one takes on the issues bedeviling America, readers familiar with his work will probably agree on this point: Kalfus is a perceptive guy. Whether he’s writing about Russia and radiation poisoning in “Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies,” 9/11 in “A Disorder Peculiar to the Country,” or the 2011 Dominique Strauss-Kahn saga in “Coup de Foudre,” Kalfus has a gift for penetrating to the core of current events and presenting issues in a provocative way.

If anxiety is a state you want literature to engender in you, or you just like a challenging read, you’ll be happy to know that Kalfus succeeds again, this time with a quietly dystopian novel that presents an unsettling portrait of a humbled America as seen through the eyes of a migrant who is a not entirely reliable narrator.

Review: ‘A Disorder Peculiar to the Country’ 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 grungy “cinder block midrise” with other men and does “semi-menial” work fixing security equipment in office buildings.

On one job, he’s repairing a rooftop system when he inadvertently glances toward a window and sees a woman taking a shower. He soon learns that her name is Marlise, and she looks a lot like a high school classmate. When he sees her again on the street, he knows it’s her, even though she looks like a different person.

That’s only the first of many uncertainties that populate the narrative. When Ron’s new country passes stricter immigration laws, he and Marlise each leave for a separate country. A decade later, Ron has relocated yet again and finds himself confined to an enclave of run-down buildings dubbed Little America. Again, Ron finds work servicing security equipment. He hopes this is his last relocation.

But politics intervene. Americans in the enclave become as divided as they had been back home. A student protest becomes so violent that the military has to suppress it. Rival militias form. A detective turns Ron into an informant. And Ron meets more residents who look like people from his past, including, possibly, that high school classmate.

At times, Kalfus is too coy. A great way to build tension is to withhold information, but an excellent way to destroy it is to extend a mystery for too long. Some readers may feel Kalfus waits longer than he should before making the contours of America’s misdeeds more definable.

And he tends to make some points too obviously, as when he writes of certain news outlets that present disturbing “exposés” of “how our countrymen had been manipulated” by movies, TV shows, novels — and newspapers. As a result of these missteps, “2 A.M. in Little America” often feels like the literary equivalent of an elegant coffee table with one leg slightly shorter than the rest: well constructed but lopsided.

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Yet readers receptive to its qualities won’t mind a little wobble here and there, nor do occasional lapses diminish the resonance of lines like “A roughly equal number of atrocities was not committed by both sides,” or that the problem stemmed from “a single side’s self-interested distortion of American history.” Once it gets going, “2 A.M. in Little America” gains considerable momentum on its way to a satisfying if uncertain conclusion.

Midway through the narrative, Ron notices physics devices in one of the schools where he services equipment that remind him of the camera obscura box his physics teacher, Mr. Strauss, had shown.

“We don’t see anything directly,” Strauss had said. The world is real but “you have to recognize how our tools of perception operate, how they’re limited, what they distort, what they amplify, what they diminish, and what they leave out.” As this demanding novel makes chillingly clear, distortions and a lack of clarity may produce interesting photographs, but in everyday life, they can lead to damaging intransigence and horrific beliefs. Put them together, and that’s how hostilities begin. Hatred is a bad look.

Michael Magras is a freelance book critic. His work has appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Economist and Times Literary Supplement.

Milkweed Editions; 256 pages; $25

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