The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A dystopian novel with a timely premise: Americans have fled the U.S. en masse

Ryan Inzana for The Washington Post (Ryan Inzana/For The Washington Post)

Imagine that America’s ongoing political strife descends into outright civil war and large numbers of people flee and establish enclaves — “mini-Americas” — in foreign lands. The migrants live in helpless vulnerability; their residency documents might be revoked at any time. But even as they struggle to make sense of their precarious new existence, the divisions that provoked their flight reemerge in their adopted homes.

That’s the witching-hour premise of Ken Kalfus’s new, all-too-timely novel, “2 A.M. in Little America.” The story mostly takes place in one such enclave, in an unnamed, non-English-speaking country. “It’s not a prediction,” he recently explained to me. “It’s a warning.”

We were enjoying a picnic lunch in leafy Peterborough, N.H., where Kalfus, who lives in Philadelphia, was bucolically encamped at a residency program for artists. Eager to explore his thinking behind the work, I spent the day with him. He greeted me in a pronounced Bronx accent and a summer fedora, a can of bug spray in hand.

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

The Bronx accent is courtesy of his parents, both natives of 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 quipped — drove a taxicab and set about on a writing career.

“2 A.M. in Little America” is Kalfus’s fourth novel. I began by asking 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 year’s stay, and shortly after their arrival, war broke out between Serbian nationalists and Croatians.

Yugoslavia began to disintegrate — and so, too, the idea of Yugoslavia as a union between south Slavs of varied religious and ethnic identities. “I saw how people started getting trapped into their own narratives, their own histories,” he recalled. As the violence intensified, Kalfus also bore witness to a mad flight for safety anywhere out of the country. A seemingly permanent diaspora — mini-Yugoslavias — took root. “My observation at this time was there was no reason why this could not happen in the United States,” he told me.

Yet it was not until more than a quarter-century later, in 2018, that Kalfus began to write the novel that became “2 A.M. in Little America.” He said the trigger, after years of brooding over “the fragmentation of our public discourse,” was the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency and the accompanying fallout, as America’s long-standing tensions ratcheted up.

Kalfus completed a first draft in about eight months, gave it to his wife to read, as is his habit, polished the work to his satisfaction — and waited for a publisher to bite. At first, no one did: His previous books, including three collections of short stories, generally met with critical acclaim, but none made the bestseller list. (A short story about a Russian scientist was turned into the HBO film “Pu-239.”)

But then came the Jan. 6, 2021, uprising at the Capitol: America’s tribal furies shockingly on display to the world. The novel sold six days later to Milkweed Editions. “It’s dark,” Milkweed’s publisher, Daniel Slager, told Kalfus’s agent, Christy Fletcher, in an email she read to me, “but brilliant and clarifying, too.” Since May, readers have bought more than half of the 8,000 hardcover copies that have been released, Slager told me, and Milkweed is now preparing a paperback run of 10,000.

My interest in “2 A.M. in Little America” was prompted by my fixation as a journalist with the topic of America’s fall from global preeminence. Kalfus and I agree on a core proposition: The American Century, a term coined in 1941 by Life magazine founder Henry Luce, is over. Today’s America offers not an object of emulation but a cautionary lesson on the perils of endemic polarization.

The American Century exhibited hubris as a national personality trait. In his book, Kalfus plumbs the opposite of this attribute: self-doubt, which is the defining feature of Ron Patterson, the main character and narrator. We meet Ron on the rooftop of an apartment house in a “foreign city,” at his job as a repairman of security equipment. He is bored, though not all that discontented, with his humdrum daily life, accepting of his tenancy in a mid-rise flat, “three to a cell-like room, all of us migrants, all still learning the local language, all with probable visa infractions.”

It’s a familiar description — of how migrants nowadays fleeing to America, from turbulent lands south of the border, say, might experience life in the United States. To see how it might feel on the other side can only make the American reader wince.

New residency requirements imposed on migrants force Ron to move to a different country, and he settles in the Little America of the story’s title. Except that he cannot really feel a sense of belonging to the enclave because of a pervasive atmosphere of suspicion. His confusion in these strained circumstances is inescapable, as when rival clans interpret his spur-of-the-moment decision to walk his dog in a particular empty lot as a sign of tribal loyalties 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 goal, he said, was to focus on the “experience” of forced migration — to show what such a life might be like down to its most quotidian elements.

To put down the book, to re-immerse in the onrushing news stream of our raucous times, is sometimes to feel the world of “2 A.M. in Little America” encroaching on real life. A coup attempt, a jaw-slackening probe of the event with intimations another could be on the way, mass shootings — what fresh horror will pop up on our screens? Is it time to get out?

“You just don’t know where America is headed these days,” a fourth-generation Californian, now resettled in Portugal as part of a growing community of ex-Golden Staters, recently told the Los Angeles Times. “Are we going to be fighting with each other forever?” Yet Portugal is proving to be no paradise. As native Portuguese blame the transplants for surging housing prices, the migrants, the Times reported, “debate over how to define themselves” — exactly the quandary Kalfus poses in his novel.

I mentioned the story to Kalfus. He said that part of what it means to be a “Lost American” — which is how he describes Ron Patterson — is to be stripped of the “privilege” that generations of Americans have considered an entitlement: have passport, will go where we please and do as we please. This decline in status may be a rude awakening, but it seems unavoidable. “We are getting deprogrammed right now,” he said with a rueful chuckle.

So which is it for him: to continue to live in a forever-feuding America or to head for uncertain shores? On July 4, after learning that a gunman had opened fire on a parade in Highland Park, Ill., “I thought, this country is at the end of its rope,” Kalfus told me in Peterborough. “And then I thought, the rope is pretty long.” He isn’t ready to bolt from America — not yet.

Paul Starobin, author of “After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age,” is writing a book on Russia.