Since Kalfus’s PU-239 story collection was first published in 1999, a lot has happened for the author. The book was made into a film for HBO (though why it never made it to the large screen we’ll never know); his 2006 novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country was a National Book Award finalist; and in 2009 the author landed a Guggenheim Fellowship.
So it’s worth taking another look, just 12 years after its first release, at the six stories and novella included here. As the subtitle, ‘Other Russian Fantasies,’ suggests, these stories share a homeland. But ‘fantasies’ should not be taken in the traditional literary meaning; these stories are about the fading dreams of the Russian people. In the title story, after he’s doomed by an accident at his plant, nuclear technician Timofey attempts to benefit by hawking some stolen plutonium on the black market. Though pitched as a farce, the story actually has a lot to say about the failed expectations of the perestroika state and the attendant paranoia. Meanwhile, in ‘Birobidzhan,’ a young man named Israel encourages Jews to follow Stalin’s call to create a Jewish settlement in Eastern Russia.
What animates all of these stories isn’t Kalfus’s subtle and piquant humour, but empathy for the ambition that arises out of desperation. The laughs only add to the beauty of the stories. When you find yourself laughing knowingly with a character, that’s when you know an author has you.