cover image Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies: A Novella and Stories

Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies: A Novella and Stories

Ken Kalfus. Milkweed Editions, $22 (272pp) ISBN 978-1-57131-029-3

These five short stories and one novella demonstrate Kalfus's sense of the absurd, and his marvelous knowledge of modern Russia. The jewel of this collection is its eponymous first story. Timofey, a nuclear engineer, absorbs a toxic amount of radiation in an accident at his workplace, an obsolete provincial nuclear weapons facility. Hoping to leave his family some money after his death, Timofey steals some plutonium and takes it to Moscow, planning to sell it on the black market. But Yeltsin-era Moscow perplexes him absolutely. He makes the mistake of trusting Shiv, a small-time hoodlum who knows no physics: the results are comic and awful at once. Other stories describe the long shadow of Stalinism. ""Birobidzhan"" is a fascinating version of the bizarre ""homeland"" for Jews that Stalin sanctioned and attempted to build within Russia. In ""Anzhelika, 13,"" a girl gets her first period on the day Stalin dies. Terrified, she equates the national mourning, her brutish father's grief and her body's function. The novella, ""Peredelkhino,"" begins with the narrator, Rem Petrovich Krilov, about to produce a servile review of a novel by Leonid Brezhnev. The narrative then flashes back to the '60s, just before the Prague Spring, when Krilov is a rising star of Moscow's official literary culture, with his own suburban dacha. After the defection of a beautiful writer whom he had innocently recommended to an editor, Krilov falls from grace; in the repressive post-1968 climate, he is tarred with her ""crime."" Kalfus shows a striking talent for transcultural understanding, and for depicting the very strange; fans of Paul Bowles, or of Kalfus's earlier collection, Thirst (to be released in paperback by Washington Square Press), won't want to miss these new tales. Agent, Michael Carlisle. Author tour. (Sept.) FYI: First serial rights to one of the stories, ""Salt,"" have been sold to Bomb magazine.