Harsh Blow: Ken Kalfus’s PU-239

HBO’s new feature movie PU-239 is based on a short story by Ken Kalfus, whose dark comedy A Disorder Peculiar to our Country was one of my favorite novels of 2006. PU-239 is no kinder to its characters than Disorder, but this time the setting is post-Soviet Russia and the stakes are higher: a young husband and father is exposed to a toxic dose of radiation in a nuclear power plant accident, and when the bureaucrats who run the plant refuse to compensate him so that his wife and son can survive his eventual death he steals a tube of plutonium and travels to a city bazaar to attempt to sell it — he doesn’t care to whom — by holding up a cardboard sign reading “PU-239”.

A local black marketeer and amateur criminal sees him and demands “Pu? What is Pu?”. This obnoxious young criminal seems hardly capable of handling a nuclear sale, but other options are slim, and the radiation-sickness victim and the young thug begin working together to find a buyer. The horrific results are funny to watch … until you think about how much damage is done. That combination of wit and utter human devastation appears to be a Ken Kalfus signature, and while some reviewers of this new film have compared it to A Clockwork Orange (because of the brutality of the prowling thugs who work the local black market) a better reference point might be Harold Pinter. As in a typical Pinter play, the characters are so morally isolated that they can barely communicate with each other. The plutonium seller wants $30,000 for his stash, and his criminal associate naturally increases this to $50,000 but then eagerly attempts to complete a sale for $8000. Nothing matters, nobody is listening to anybody else, and by the end of this movie nothing is solved and a whole lot of terrible new problems are created.

That’s the world according to Ken Kalfus, and I highly recommend PU-239, a disturbing television movie about nuclear proliferation and human frailty.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!