Ken Kalfus' 'Coup de Foudre': Portrait of wild energy

"Coup de Foudre" by Ken Kalfus. (From the book jacket)

Coup de Foudre

A Novella and Stories

By Ken Kalfus

Bloomsbury USA. 288 pp. $26

Reviewed by Joe

Samuel Starnes


Where goes the mind of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a titan of global finance whose ascent toward the French presidency collapsed when he was charged with sexually assaulting a maid in a $3,000-a-night New York hotel suite? What motivates this Caligula of currency, former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, acquitted on attempted rape charges (although he settled a civil suit with his accuser), who now awaits a verdict on pimping charges in France for his role in jet-setting orgies? We can't know for certain, but Ken Kalfus uses fiction with wild energy and abandon to explore such a mind-set in his excellent novella Coup de Foudre.

Originally published in Harper's Magazine in April 2014, the story is told in the form of a confessional letter from David Lèon Landau, a character identical to Strauss-Kahn, to the unlucky maid, a West African immigrant. He opens the letter to her, however, by declaring that he will never send it. Imagine Humbert Humbert being acquitted and writing an apology he withholds from Lolita.

Landau's letter raises a question that brings to mind sex scandals involving Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton. "You must wonder how I can be so smart and yet think so recklessly," he says.

Lust is one answer. Everywhere Landau goes, in airports and on the streets of New York, this "ridiculous old goat of a man" sees women he tries to seduce. And he has these thoughts while trying to save the global economy, anticipating a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom he finds a "stolid, dreary woman."

Coup de Foudre - French for "thunderbolt" - operates on many levels, touching on poverty, race, immigration, AIDS, prostitution, and - through an unflinching discussion of genital mutilation - women's rights in Africa.

Fifteen short stories fill out the book. There are several gems, but a few don't quite sing in full voice. Any serious reader, however, should be excited to read the work of a writer with Kalfus' talent. A native New Yorker, and a Philadelphia resident since 1998, Kalfus, 61, has been a finalist for both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and he has received both the prestigious Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships. Read Coupe de Foudre to see firsthand why his writing is so highly regarded.


Joe Samuel Starnes' third novel, "Red Dirt," was published in April. He works in the administration and teaches at Widener University.