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PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies: A Novella and Stories [Hardcover]

Ken Kalfus
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 18 1999
In this new book of fiction, Ken Kalfus plucks individual lives from the stew of a century of Russian history and serves them up in tales that range from hair-raising to comic to fabulous.

The title story follows a nuclear power plant worker as he hawks a most unusual package on the black market - a canister of weapons-grade plutonium (Pu-239). "Budyonnovsk" skewers the relationship between Moscow and Chechnya. "Salt" is an economic fairy tale, featuring kings, princesses, and swiftly melting currencies. The novella "Peredelkino" traces the fortunes of an editor and critic during the liberalizing 1960s who faces, among other things, the prospect of reviewing historical fiction by one "L. I. Brezhnev.


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In his second book of short stories, Ken Kalfus takes on the speeding troika that is Russia in the 20th century. It's an astonishing act of literary ventriloquism, displaying a range of subjects and techniques that would be remarkable in any writer, and is that much more so in one working in a tradition not his own. There are not one but many Russias in Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies: the giddy utopianism of the early Soviet Union; the postwar Stalinist personality cult; the brief thaw of '60s liberalism; and, perhaps most affectingly, the post-Gorbachev state, in which infrastructure crumbles while workers go unpaid. The title story begins with an accident in a nuclear plant and ends in unwitting apocalypse, as a technician dying of radiation poisoning attempts to sell weapons-grade plutonium on the black market. The result is part tragedy, part Fargo-style farce, featuring hoodlums so dumb they think they're dealing in drugs: "'What did he call it?' ... 'Plutonium. From Bolivia, he said.'" In "Anzhelika, 13," a young girl is convinced she has caused Stalin's death, while "Salt" is a satiric fairy tale about supply and demand. "Budyonnovsk" finds Viktor Chernomyrdin negotiating not with Chechen hostage-takers but with an exhausted, embattled Russian Everyman, Vasya, who is "old enough to know what a real job is, but not old enough to have ever had one."

The short-story collection suits Kalfus; its eclecticism let him come at his subject from as many angles as he can dream up (and that's a lot). It's harder to sustain the same kind of imaginative momentum in a longer form, which makes the book's final novella an unexpected success. "Peredelkino" follows two writers through an intricate dance of literature, politics, jealousy, and desire, and then closes on a lovely and moving image. The narrator--discredited, disillusioned, his career finished--stands outside his own house "in the dark nowhere place from where authors always watch their readers." Inside is his wife, to whom he has been repeatedly and flagrantly unfaithful, oblivious to his presence but transfixed by his book:

I knew that shortly there would be many explanations to be made, however imperfectly, and then confessions and recriminations, protestations of grief and loss, and then at last hard, practical calculation. Before that, I wanted to absorb, place in words that I would always be able to summon, an image of her like that, the passionate reader.
In a sense, that's us he's looking at, absorbed in the book we've just finished. Kalfus is the kind of writer who can tip his hat to the reader--who can acknowledge our complicity--all without ever lifting us out of the world he's created. Most fiction speaks to either the heart or the head; his does both with ease. --Mary Park

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
Someone committed a simple error that, according to the plant's blueprints, should have been impossible, and a valve was left open, a pipe ruptured, a technician was trapped in a crawlspace, and a small fire destroyed several workstations. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful... Nov. 22 2003
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
I ran across this book entirely by accident. While scanning the shelf for yet another author, the title caught my eye, and being a Russian language undergraduate and traveler; I decided to take the book home to find out more these "russian fantasies". When at home, I randomly opened the book and landed straight on the story Birobidzhan and decided that was were I would start and within a few lines, I was totally in love. Mr. Kalfus has a writing style that instantly transports his readers into the same realm of his characters. Not only could I envision Israel and Larissa dancing, but I could also hear that insistent jazz unwinding from its record. It's been a long time since I've been memorized by an author, albeit a male author and I must say that the story Birobidzhan is enough for me to say this book is wonderful.
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3.0 out of 5 stars A decent collection of stories Jan. 10 2002
By Leonard Fleisig TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
Pu-239 consists of a collection of six short stories followed by a novella. The short stories cover a broad range of topics and cross the vast geographic expanse (Moscow, Chechnya, an area like Chernobyl, and the former Soviet/Jewish Republic of Birobidzhan) that is the former USSR. Some of the stories work and read well. Pu-239 and Birobidzhan work particularly well. Others, Orbit and Anzhelika, 13 are acceptable. Salt and Budyonnovsk, are not particularly good. The Novella, Peredelkino, concludes the collection and is Kalfus' best piece of writing. Ironically, it also explains the pitfall that keeps this work from a higher rating. Much has been made in prior reviews and in the dust jacket of Kalfus' 4-year stay in the USSR/CIS. Some have argued that the stories reflect the broad but ultimately superficial range of Kalfus' knowledge of Russia. This is a valid criticism. However, the importance of that criticism depends upon whether you believe that a short story requires the same kind of depth one would look for in a novel. Further, it depends upon whether you view in-depth knowledge to be a pre-requisite for a good story. Peredelkino centers on a Soviet writer and member of the Writer's Union during the Brezhnev regime. The protagonist receives fierce criticism for a novel that focuses on life on a Soviet merchant vessel. The criticism centers on his lack of precise in-depth information about life on the ship. It shows, his critics argue, a lack of concern for Soviet realism. The writer complains that the facts were not essential. He writes fiction and the ship was merely a fiction delivery device. Kalfus, to a certain extent, faces the same criticism. Despite his 4-year stay, his stories do not seem to cut below the outer levels of reality of Soviet life. Read more ›
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4.0 out of 5 stars Compelling collection of short stories May 14 2001
Format:Paperback
Kalfus' second collection of stories has a lot to commend it. The title story "PU-239" is the best of the book. Like all short story collections, some are very successful and some are complete misses. In general, I like the way he draws out characters and he is excellent at describing the movements that define a person. In some of the stories, I felt that he only had a cursory, historical knowledge of places and events and that made the story seems a little shallow. Overall, this is a worthwhile book to own and enjoy.
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2.0 out of 5 stars The Fantasies Are Not Only Russian March 20 2001
Format:Paperback
This is the second collection of short stories written by Mr. Kalfus, and additionally includes a novella as the final installment. This series of work was generally less well received than his first book entitled, "Thirst", however I came across "Pu-239", first so my expectations were limited. His first effort was highly praised, however I found it barely readable, this second work is worse.
This collection of Russian tales is the result of his having spent 4 years in the Former Soviet Union, and, "traveling the breadth of the Russian landscape". I think this statement is fair as he evidently did not travel the areas depth, as these stories are for the most part cliché, shallow, and sprinkled with historical bits of trivia as in, "Orbit", that anyone who has read anything of the Russian Space Program knows of. The suggestion the Author spent years immersed in the culture of The Former Soviet Union may be true, but you will not find it in these stories.
"Pu-239", begins and holds some interest even though it appears as a knock off of a Chernobyl like incident. At the end of its 30 pages it deteriorates into actions by characters that lack a high enough I.Q. to walk upright. "Salt", is just plain insulting to the reader. This fable might be appropriate in a children's book, but Aesop already has that area covered.
As I mentioned in my comments on the first collection, I was perhaps the odd reader out, not so this time. This book and its contents are just plain bad. Fortunately the reader is excused another Reading Group Guide, or the condescension would be insufferable.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointed Sept. 21 2000
By Tyler
Format:Hardcover
Don't expect this collection of short stories to be anywhere as good as the author's first work Thirst. The first titled story was the best of the bunch, similar in style and technique to what made the stories in Thirst great. However it's downhill from there; you keep hoping that something interesting will happen but the other stories are as dreary as the Russian weather.
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Most recent customer reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars ostarozhno!
this is the most absurd collection of short stories i have ever encountered, and i don't mean in the danill kharms sort of way. Read more
Published on July 21 2000
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent, enjoyable read
I found this to be a great collection of short stories, and I think those who are interested in life in the Soviet Union/Russia of the 20th Century will also find it to be a... Read more
Published on June 23 2000 by Buckeye
5.0 out of 5 stars Finalist for the 1999 PEN/Faulkner award.
This book reminds you that a good short story can fill you up as much as the best novel because it tantalizes and teases you with its economy.
Published on April 7 2000
5.0 out of 5 stars Call it "Inside the Russian Mind."
There's an old Russian story about a serf who's granted a wish by a genie. "Kill my neighbour's cow" is the wish. This book expands on that thought process. Read more
Published on Feb. 28 2000 by Patrick Carroll
2.0 out of 5 stars Does my review count if I couldn't finish the book?
Having read (and loved) "Thirst" let me say that I do think Kalfus is a fine writer, a brave guy (for going to godforsaken Russia) and an all-around Smart Guy if not a... Read more
Published on Jan. 22 2000 by "kevarama"
5.0 out of 5 stars An AbsoluteGem
Whoever sent Ken Kalfus' wife to work in Moscow has done a great service to readers. Placed in such a strange environment, Kalfus has crafted a collection of short stories (and a... Read more
Published on June 20 1999 by A Fan
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