PU-239 by Ken Kalfus


and Other Russian Fantasies
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A second collection, including six stories and a novella, by the worldly-wise (and evidently well-traveled) author of last year’s crackling, cosmopolitan debut volume, Thirst. This time, all the pieces are set in Russia and are convincingly redolent of that country’s history, landscapes, and culture. The novella “Peredelkino,” for example, offers an amusing picture of the literary vocation in the story of Rem Petrovich, a minor novelist and critic who is assigned the review of a massive historical novel written by one “L.I. Brezhnev,” falls for a calculating beauty whose turgid novels become runaway bestsellers, and tiptoes precariously along the good side of the all-powerful Writers” Union. The story is too long, but it’s filled with wry, knowing digs at the Russian literary establishment’s ponderous self-importance. “Salt,” in brisk fable-like fashion, pillories the quick-fix approach to the country’s seemingly unending economic problems—and “Orbit” hilariously fictionalizes the earthbound priorities indulged by Russia’s first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, assured that his 1961 “flight would make the definitive argument sent for socialism.” Three stories strike deeper. “Birobizdan” is the Shangri-la, located near the Chinese border, where Russia’s Jews believe (erroneously) they—ll be permitted to settle in the new post-Revolutionary paradise ruled by “Comrade Stalin.” “Anzhelika, 13” memorably encapsulates the populace’s intimidation by Stalin in the story of an adolescent girl who believes that her budding sexuality has caused the Beloved Leader’s death. And the brilliant “PU-239” mines genuine comic terror from the tale of a nuclear engineer who receives a fatal dose of radiation during a reactor accident, plots to support the family that will survive him by selling stolen “fissile material,” and unwisely strikes a deal with a murderous hoodlum—quite unintentionally unleashing Armageddon. Imaginative, densely detailed stories that open a window on a world perhaps more remote now than ever before. Kalfus’s crafty, nerve-rattling tales are among the most unusual and interesting now being written.

Pub Date: Sept. 17th, 1999
ISBN: 1-57131-029-0
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Milkweed
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 1999


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