The sentences in Mark Gluth's debut novella are short. Like this. All of them. The title is a tip-off: "Kroftis." That's an anagram for Kristof. Writer Agota Kristof, that is. She's a master of brevity, and her influence lurks in the margins of this spare and shattering work about grief and mourning. Gluth acknowledges his debt: "I like her feel for sentences," he says, "and how she builds these elaborate narratives out of the simplest, most childlike building blocks."

But The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis (Akashic Books, 120 pages, $14.95) is more than a mannered homage. The sentences are the way they are because death haunts every page, and thoughts can't grow in the darkness of grief. They simply break. Into fragments. Into shards and slivers that mask a deeper structural complexity. The book is divided into three chapters, and the deaths that occur in each haunt the others. In one, Margaret Kroftis daydreams and writes as her days on earth dwindle. In another, a young couple staggers through a love that is tested and strengthened by the deaths of friends. In the final chapter we visit Margaret again, and learn how she became the lonely soul we met on the first page.

Gluth lives in Bellingham, Wash., a place where, according to the author, "time just kinda stops in the winter," and his book, set in the gray dolor of the Northwest, feels like one of those endless January days we all know so well. The monochromatic terseness can be redundant, even exhausting, but halfway through this brief work, something strange and scary happens. A profound sadness sinks in—into the book, into the reader, into everything. The hour it takes to read The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis is a long one, because the grief in it feels so real, so true.

Like a kid who's taken her pencil to a maze before eyeing its design, the stricken people in Margaret Kroftis go forward, meet a dead end, move back and then try another route before being frustrated once again. Steps are retraced, erased, retraced again. It's a startlingly accurate iteration of the way depressed minds malfunction. What remains is a terrified scrawl of anguish, the messy evidence of a brain attempting to find a way out, a way through to the blankness that promises release. That blankness is death, but death's really another wall, another opaque apparition to be surmounted. As the book concludes, Gluth circles back to the beginning, to a house where sadness lives forever, where pain becomes writing and writing becomes life. There is even consolation there: Our bodies die, but the meaning of our loss survives, and it is beautiful, somehow.


Mark Gluth reads with James Greer, author of

The Failure,

Thursday, March 18, at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm. Free.