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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Fantasies

In his previous short-story collection, "Thirst," the well-traveled American writer Ken Kalfus set the tales in such divergent locales as New York City, Paris, a jungle in Southeast Asia, a small town in Vermont and suburban Long Island. These settings were lures, obviously, but they also provided the psychological underpinnings of the narrators and protagonists.

I mention this simply because for Kalfus, geography seems to be the primary starting point and the bridge between his own life and his fiction: His is a deep identification with place. To put it another way, Kalfus experiences the not uncommon artistic equivalent of the Stockholm syndrome.

From 1994 to 1998 Kalfus lived in Moscow and traveled about Russia in order to research and write the six stories and novella that comprise his latest collection, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies. It's no easy trick writing stories about another culture, especially one so protective of its own literature, but Ken Kalfus, one of the United States' most inventive and important contemporary fiction writers, pulls it off remarkably well. He explores life in the provinces as well as in the capital, and like any expatriate not out simply for the bucks, he is drawn completely into Russian society, including, of course, its history.

Kalfus' melding of the personal with the historical (and of his own life with that of the country) is hardly a uniquely Russian experience. People do it everywhere. How often have we been asked or contemplated where we were when JFK was assassinated? Or when Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon? Or when the Berlin Wall came down?

Essentially Kalfus does the same thing in his story "Anzhelika, 13," where the defining moment in Soviet history he chooses is the day Stalin died. That day also happens to be a momentous occasion for a young girl, Anzhelika. In 19 pages Kalfus packs it all in nicely: the claustrophobia and lack of privacy in an overcrowded communal apartment, the mistrust, the everyday fear and the people's anxiety over the death of Stalin and, most importantly, the subtle but swift changes in the way the girl is now perceived by males. Kalfus parallels one girl's confusion and society's, and the effect is memorable.

There are a lot of little details that expatriate readers, or anyone who has spent any time in Russia during the past six years, might pick up on and find amusing. For instance in the title story, about an irradiated worker trying to sell stolen plutonium, a small-time hoodlum, seeking the respect he perceives himself to be deprived of, constantly refers to himself as a "businessman." In another story, set in southern Russia in 1995, a dysfunctional family gets a telephone call from Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin asking advice on the Chechen hostage crisis. Kalfus also tosses in transliterated words here and there for emphasis, but not always to good effect. And depending on your knowledge of Russian, this will either amuse you or bore you.

In a piece titled "Orbit" Kalfus turns his structural formula around. The protagonist is Yury Gagarin on the night before his launch into space. One can only imagine Kalfus riding a trolleybus down Leninsky Prospekt past Ploshchad Gagarina and seeing the gigantic monument to the cosmonaut (which only foreigners stare at and appreciate) gleaming silver against the blue sky in the afternoon sun. Whatever triggered this story, Kalfus shrinks the monument somewhat by humanizing Gagarin, whose premature death turned him into a legend. Yet he doesn't knock over the legend either.

Anti-fiction is not what Kalfus is about. In the story "Birobidzhan," the founding of the Jewish Autonomous Region is told by the daughter of two early settlers. Or rather, it is a tale of how her parents met and how her father, a rabid and idealistic Bolshevik, persuaded her mother to marry him and join him in the nether reaches of the Soviet Union. But neither description does it justice; this is the most tragi-comic tale in a collection marked by such storytelling. The tragedy Kalfus brings out is the struggle to reclaim one's heritage in a skewed political environment, and it is in reading this story that it dawns on you how well Kalfus knows the people he's writing about: These stubborn and muddled idealists are perhaps the truest characters in the book. Truer than Yury Gagarin, certainly truer than Viktor Chernomyrdin.

So is there a clunker in this collection? Not really, but to my way of seeing it, the fairy tale-like story, "Salt," is out of place. True enough, it shows off Kalfus' versatility, a quality that was the hallmark of his other collection, but the tale - about a man who becomes a successful trader but doesn't have the foresight to see beyond his greed - doesn't really measure up to the other pieces in this book. Sure, it's all a metaphor for the economic lunacy holding sway in Russia these days, but the reality itself is surreal enough and, besides, the epigraph the author tacks on tips you off before you've even begun to read the story.

A versatility of a far subtler type is exhibited in the novella, "Peredelkino," set in the writers' village just outside of Moscow. This story is Kalfus' tour de force. Here the first-person narrator is a full-fledged member of the late-1960s Moscow intelligentsia: a writer and an influential member of the writer's union. The story deals with all of the insecurities and double deals that go along with any artistic career advancement but which were magnified in the conspiratorial atmosphere of the Brezhnev Stagnation. Its subtle versatility is not in the plot, or the theme, or the structure, but in characterization and language. Without employing any dazzling virtuosity, Kalfus pulls off a neat effect: The narrator, Rem Krilov, is so absorbing a storyteller, his voice so believable, that you experience the eerie sensation that you are reading a Russian story in translation. On the author's part this is more than mere mimicry of a Russian author's style. It's spending four years in a place and getting deep enough into it to where fiction can reveal the truth about your circumstances and the truth that is within yourself.

"Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies," by Ken Kalfus. Milkweed Editions. 272pp. $22.00.