PU-239 & Other Russian Fantasies

Kalfus, Ken

Published by Milkweed Editions, 1999
ISBN 10: 1571310290 / ISBN 13: 9781571310293
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Minneapolis. 1999. Milkweed Editions. 1st Edition. Very Good In Dustjacket. . hardcover. ISBN: 1571310290. inventory # 28008. FROM THE PUBLISHER - 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.'. Bookseller Inventory #

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Synopsis: 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."

Review: 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

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Bibliographic Details

Title: PU-239 & Other Russian Fantasies
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
Publication Date: 1999
Binding: hardcover
Book Condition: Very Good In Dustjacket

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