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Wednesday, June 28th, 2006
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A Disorder Peculiar to the Country: A Novel

by Ken Kalfus

Emotional Terrorism

A review by Anna Godbersen

Well, yes, sometimes love does feel like a battlefield, and couples in the process of breaking up may be forgiven for thinking that diplomacy between a husband and wife can be as difficult as diplomacy between nations of disparate needs, histories and values. But that is no excuse for Ken Kalfus's crisp, mean-spirited A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, in which the parents of two young children use the autumn of 2001 as a backdrop for their own nasty divorce. How nasty? Joyce and Marshall Harriman are speaking through their lawyers but still sharing their mutually coveted Brooklyn Heights apartment when both come to believe that the other has perished on September 11 -- Joyce should have been on United 93, and Marshall was late to his job in the World Trade Center. Both experience something like glee. Would-be ex-spouses with lesser vitriol might have, upon discovering their twin survivals, taken that famously blue day in September as a sign and given each other another chance, but not these two. ("She wanted to ruin him, not only financially but personally, and not just for now, but for forever.") For Joyce and Marshall, post-9/11 is where the emotional terrorism really begins.

The spectacle of middle-class, nearly middle-aged people behaving badly during tragic and historical times is gratifying, and A Disorder Peculiar to the Country is spiked with a wonderful black humor. There is something almost comforting about the lack of piety with which Kalfus handles the last five years. But the overall effect of this novel is of a dark comedy of manners grafted onto a recounting of recent history, neither element satisfying in itself, nearly every segue between the personal and political jarring. At a dinner party, after Marshall has told his 9/11 story, the host "beamed, aware that his... party had suddenly been swept within the circumference of contemporary world events." A Disorder Peculiar to the Country is permeated with this awkward, misplaced pride.

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