Wednesday, September 1, 1999

Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, by Ken Kalfus

A Review of Ken Kalfus

Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Fall 1999

By Ken Kalfus
Milkweed ($22)

Arriving on the heels of his first collection, Thirst, Ken Kalfus’ new story collection, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, marks a radical leap forward for its author. Wildly overrated by just about everyone, Thirst was long on plot and short on tone, texture, character, and just about everything else a story collection needs. With the exception of a few isolated flights of fantasy, the collection read like Ron Carlson on an off day. But Pu-239 reads like nobody but Ken Kalfus.

Not without its flaws, however, Pu-239 starts off only a little past where Thirst left off. The title story, although terrifying plot-wise, sacrifices real characterization as it recounts the rapid succession of events that follow when a doomed power plant worker tries to sell a canister of plutonium on the Russian black market. Not only is the premise straight out of a Sean Connery/Alec Baldwin vehicle, it moves so quickly that any attempt at giving it texture ends up sounding awkward and forced. The overall effect is chilling, though, and when the story reaches its astonishing conclusion, it becomes clear that Kalfus has done an expert job of planting the seeds of post-story fallout in the reader’s mind.

While the breakneck opening story may grab the reader’s attention, it’s Kalfus’ longer stories that allow him to do what he does best. In “Birobizhdan” Kalfus tells the story of Jewish patriots who lay the groundwork for an autonomous Jewish state in the eastern part of the Soviet Union. Not only is the story absolutely compelling, but Kalfus employs ingeniously effective storytelling strategies that open up profound narrative explorations without slowing the story down at all. Perhaps the most brilliant section is when a group of Jews, led by the politically gung-ho Israel, sets out on their trainride east. The stops and starts, the interminable delays and setbacks, the increasing hostility at each stop, and the relentless determination to keep moving all mirror the story itself as it chugs toward its destiny. And of course there’s the unspoken implications of Jews heading east on a train, with the imminent Soviet betrayal foreshadowing Europe’s betrayal in World War II. Ominous, indeed.

The novella “Peredelkino” is a bit less successful than “Birobizhdan,” but it covers almost as much ground as it traces the vertiginous ups and downs of a Soviet writer’s career. As in Thirst, Kalfus is most successful when he tests the limits of his storytelling powers, but postmodernism is unfortunately still a little beyond his reach, as the garbled “Bodyonnovsk” attests. But the hilarious fairy tale “Salt” achieves a near-perfect tone as it explores the disparity between money and value.

The only real bummer about Pu-239 is that it draws a fairly sharp line between reality and fantasy. The realities that Kalfus evokes can be so darkly surreal, however, that even at their most direct and devastating, they mimic the mind’s hazy mediation. And even though he keeps the surface level fairly straight, Kalfus makes the reader keenly aware of the nuclear dimensions packed within the boundaries of Newtonian fiction.

—David Wiley