PU-239 AND OTHER RUSSIAN FANTASIES by Ken Kalfus

(Milkweed Editions) $22

Ken Kalfus spent 1998 slathered in the most freely flowing praise any fresh young author could ask for. Thirst, his first story collection, "mark[ed] the debut of a major literary talent," according to Salon, and Kalfus himself "is an important writer in every sense of 'important,'" said David Foster Wallace.

As a whole, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies doesn't come within range of that kind of praise. Collected here are six short stories and one novella set within Russia, presumably written during or very shortly after Kalfus' four-year residence in Moscow. Most ambitiously, there are no American characters in any story; Kalfus intends to get inside the Russian psyche, without the aid of Western ciphers to translate for him. It's not the Russian characters or perspective that fail, though; it's the writing itself.

Kalfus has a problem linking his narrative voice to the characters he writes. In "Anzhelika, 13," about a young girl whose first period occurs on the day of Stalin's death, Kalfus' fondness for curious words ("illuminant," "occulted," "luminesced") undermines Anzhelika's internal voice. Likewise "Pu-239," a great story he is simply not subtle enough to pull off.

With "Birobizhdan," however, Kalfus suddenly finds the flow. The narrator is oblique but engaging, and the story -- a group of patriotic Jews, led by the naive but ebullient Israel Davidovich, attempts to create a homeland within the context of greater Russia -- is tense and complex. Here, as in the novella "Peredelkino," Kalfus explores what it means to be a Communist, which requires but doesn't necessarily inspire absolute faith in the Party.

"Peredelkino," last to appear in the book, is far and away the best thing in it. Here, at last, is a character with conflicted feelings, implicit resentments, frustrations unrelieved and magnified. Rem Petrovich is a national writer, an officially endorsed author well aware of the strict expectations the state has for its publishing organ. When a sub-mediocre authoress to whom he is tenuously linked defects, and causes a political uproar in Russia, Petrovich feels the pangs of political responsibility, artistic failure, and thwarted international ambition. Perhaps because the protagonist is an intellectual, Kalfus is far more comfortable describing his discomfort.

It's hard to tell whether the awkwardness of the first few stories sours the last few, or if the last stories uplift the first. Only a determined reader will still be around to make the call. EVAN SULT

THE IMP #3: THE SMARTEST CARTOONIST ON EARTH (CHRIS WARE) by Dan Raeburn

(self-published, available at Pistil Books & News) $4

The Imp is a truly bizarre publication. It's a zine, kind of, in that the writer, editor, designer, publisher, and distributor are all one person, Dan Raeburn. More accurately, though, it's a series of monographs about influential comics artists. Issue #1 was a close examination of the work of Dan Clowes, the creator of Eightball. Issue #2 gave the same critical treatment to Jack Chick, artist and publisher of those free, tiny, hell-and-brimstone Christian pamphlets. In issue #3, Raeburn takes on fellow Chicagoan Chris Ware, of Acme Novelty Library fame.

Raeburn is a graphic designer as well as a writer, and his design work sets his publications apart. Each issue of The Imp refers visually to the artwork it's critiquing: The Clowes issue was in the form of a standard-size comic book, while the Chick issue was an oversize pamphlet.

The Chris Ware issue, which looks like a newspaper, refers not only to Ware's own newspaper strips, but also to his family's history in the newspaper business. The "newspaper" even contains a full-color comics section, with comics about Ware drawn by Archer Prewitt, Ivan Brunetti, Jessica Abel, and Terry LaBan.

Raeburn's perfectionism goes beyond the "form" of his publications to the "content" (though in The Imp, as in the discipline of comics, these two are hopelessly blurred). His analysis of Ware's work is painstaking, finding links to ragtime, poetry, and Joseph Cornell's boxes.

Raeburn has apparently sold 2,000 copies in the weeks since Imp #3: The Smartest Cartoonist was published -- which, if there were a New York Times bestseller list for zines, would surely put it at number one. If you've ever been amazed, puzzled, or moved to tears by the Acme Novelty Library, four dollars for The Smartest Cartoonist is money well spent. CARRIE GOLUS

MISS MACINTOSH, MY DARLING by Marguerite Young

(Dalkey Archive) $30

Some of my favorite pieces of literature are those I will never understand. Miss Macintosh, My Darling, a work first released in 1965 by Greenwich Village denizen Marguerite Young, is one of these. Miss Macintosh is a masterpiece Miss Young worked on for 18 years -- and the resulting two-volume tome is as impressive for girth as for fineness of language. Opulent, sweeping, veering toward purple, the novels are not stories so much as huge adjectival landscapes -- mid-century America mowed into language. While compulsively readable, they are equally effective if treated as seas into which one may dip from time to time. TRACI VOGEL

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