Sex in Russia

Sex in Russia

By Correy Baldwin

A review of Sex In Russia by Kenneth Radu

Published on October 5, 2010

Sex In Russia
Kenneth Radu

DC Books
$18.95
paper
189pp
978-1-897190-65-4

In the story “A Change of Heart” – from Kenneth Radu’s latest collection Sex in Russia – Ronald fantasizes, as he does his laundry, about murdering his infinitely charming neighbour, Bela, who has wormed his way into Ronald’s family, threatening the latter’s roles of father and husband. Throughout the story, he jealously recalls Bela’s finer moments, including the time Ronald required CPR and Bela “began breathing into his mouth like some Carpathian mountain deity blowing life into a peasant of clay.” The line captures their relationship perfectly: Ronald is indebted to and hopelessly emasculated by the same
man.

The characters in Sex in Russia are effortlessly believable; people with familiar concerns that elicit our empathy, and quirks and flaws that pique our interest – ordinary people to whom we are drawn through the grace of Radu’s prose. They struggle to balance their duelling selfish and selfless motivations and to maintain a sense of dignity and control. Many are sensing their closest relationships drift. Some are losing a connection with their children, while others worry about their mortgage or contemplate aging. Death appears in various forms – as a burden, an escape, or a revelation. Death walks the fine line between a joke and a horrific act, a passing thought and a grim reality.

These are solemn topics, yet the collection skips along with a lightness of language and a preference for hope. Sober preoccupations are lined with humour and optimism, while the lighter, more comedic tales carry a serious undertone. These subtleties are handled with an appropriate sense of restraint, such that the quiet simplicity of each story belies the complexity driving it.

In “The Rottweilers,” a lonely man living in a dull suburban neighbourhood is uncomfortable with his new neighbour, the owner of two Rottweilers and a motorcycle. “The gas tank bulged,” he notes, “like a goitre between the driver’s legs.” Yet, through this tenuous relationship with his neighbour, he is encouraged to re-engage with the world. Often disarmingly funny, Radu has readers chuckling their way through succinct, wry observations. While the book is not overtly comedic, Radu uses humour as a sort of gravitational centre, which his stories pull toward or push against.

He writes with confidence, though the occasional meandering sentence could be reigned in, and a couple of stories would have benefited from less dramatic endings. Still, his approach is level-headed, and although he prefers to keep his writing unadorned, it sparkles here and there with gems of poetry and exquisite imagery. In the title story we are told that a tourist “fumbled among the brambles of the Cyrillic alphabet.” The line concerns Delia, a spunky, elderly woman on a cruise ship docked at St. Petersburg who is struggling to maintain her sexuality among her aging peers. A senior cruise is an unsympathetic scenario, and thus a daring opener to the collection, but we immediately feel comfortable in Delia’s presence.

The best stories catch lives at moments of casual existential contemplation – minds wandering from nagging concerns to daily errands, and back again. Characters become aware of and adjust to their own disillusionment, often settling on a bittersweet epiphany, or misguided, though necessary, optimism.

One of the finest stories is also one of the most unassuming: “Favourite Children” tells of a woman, Samantha, sensing the distances growing within her family. Herhusband’s favouritism toward their older children is pushing their youngest son away, and wife and husband from each other. Meanwhile, a recent murder both distracts her from and informs these thoughts. Like Radu, Samantha wisely sees that the story worth exploring is not the sensational murder, but the family drama unfolding quietly and dangerously around her. mRb

Correy Baldwin is publisher of Buffalo Runs Press.

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