A review of Helens: Not Necessarily About Sex by by Matthew Louis Kalash

Reviewed by David Brizer

Helens: Not Necessarily About Sex
by Mathew Louis Kalash
Brilliant Books Literary
June 2023, ASIN: B0CBL6KJQV, 361 pages

While the rest of the world reads and writes exposés, self-help books, and airport
thrillers, Matthew Louis Kalash’s story collection, Helens: Not Necessarily About Sex, hearkens back to a far more expansive far more glorious time in narrative, when atmosphere and character and supremely intelligent voice ruled.

In the first story, ‘The Unfinished Work’, the narrator waxes nostalgic about an old love and old friends. In the beautifully accomplished nested story within, we learn that:

God delivered into the ancient Etruscan village of Fiesole, mere kilometers north of grand Florence, the seat of the Renaissance and indeed the beating heart of artistry to this day, the babe Andaluca Rinaldi, who would resurrect the legacy of Giotto with his breath-taking representation of the human form, his heartrending delicacy of expression, and the supple relief in his figures.

This prose is not purple. Far from it: it is typical Kalash, exercising his syncretic muscle as a writer and scholar. Many of the sentences in this collection unwind with similar intelligence and majesty.

‘En Passant’, the second story, is a similarly engaging tourney in beautiful writing. The setting is Boccaccio’s, a local restaurant. Like so much else in this collection, the names and places are doubly and sometime triply evocative of the contemporaneous past, present, and future. The principal character’s dour reflections, couched in the most weaponized/judgmental barbs imaginable, recall Infinite Jest’s slack-mouthed critic of prep schools and tennis academies; Dostoevsky’s Underground Man; as well as the ‘student’ novels of Ronald Firbank.

This is writing, literary fiction, at its most realized potential. In the title story, ‘Helens,’ an academic (no doubt a même of the author himself), who is a college history instructor, sets the stage by discussing, at fascinating length, the Trojan War. Paris and Menelaus and Helen.

Needless to say here too there is a story running in tandem: the narrator is desperately in love with his mentor’s wife (Homer’s Paris faced a similar situation). Take a deep breath and dive in to this wondrous world of narrative marvel; E.T.A. Hoffman would have been right at home here. Kalash’s Helens, is a feat, a resurrection, a set of stories accomplished by means of arcane footnotes (Pierre Senges and Foster Wallace do thisall the time), deep divagation, and a loving restoration of an idealized past. The book put me most in mind of Stephen Zweig’s story collection, The Burning Secret, which is impossible not to love.

About the reviewer: David Allen Brizer is a NYC-based author and book critic. His articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The New England Journal of Medicine, The American Journal of Psychiatry, Rain Taxi, others. His short stories have been published in AGNI, Exquisite Corpse, Word Riot, among others. Brizer’s non-fiction books include Quitting Smoking for Dummies, and Addiction & Recovery for Beginners. His second novel, The Secret Doctrine of V.H. Rand, will be published by Fomite in January 2024, a follow-up to his Victor Rand (2014.) At present he is working on a collection of short stories and a metafiction about literary surrealists.