Moving through the same territory as Polonaise (1999), Bukoski’s fourth collection sets 13 stories in the Polish and Slavic neighborhoods of Superior, Wisconsin.
The author mines a rich vein of American society that has received much less literary attention than it deserves, walking us through the old blue-collar neighborhoods where the VFW halls are named after Thaddeus Kosciuszko (Polish hero of the American Revolution, in case you didn’t know) and polkas far outnumber Sinatra on any jukebox in town. Stolid, hardworking, conservative, and somewhat clannish, the Catholic Slavs of Bukoski’s stories are even more unpretentious than the Lutheran Swedes of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone—although they can raise a lot more hell at a party. The outsiders in their midst, like Joe Rubin, the Jewish railway track inspector of the title story, tend to be more solitary than most, but people here are rather lonely in general and observe the world around them with a mixture of cynicism and resignation. The parish priest who narrates “Winter Weeds,” for example, has to endure the private torment of learning in the confessional that a woman he is secretly obsessed with has taken a lover, while the Marine corporal of “A Geography of Snow” seems to take pleasure in bragging while drunk that he is nothing more than a company cook who got his Purple Heart as the result of a truck accident. The author succeeds in portraying the overwhelming smallness of this world and its dependence upon familiar routines: the parish church that provides an entire social life for the old lady in “Holy Walker,” or the accordion gigs that bring some variety (as well as an occasional fling) into the settled life of mill worker Buck Mrozek in “Closing Time.” Ranging from the 1940s to the present day, Bukoski’s tales also serve as a record of a slowly fading world.
At once sad and fascinating: fine sketches of an interesting subject.