The 16 linked stories of Anthony Bukoski's seventh collection find their heart in Superior, Wis., "a broken place of beat-up dreams, beat-up taverns, and empty lots the north wind blows through."
His characters are, for the most part, working-class Polish-Americans, though two of the stories return to Poland of the past, impressions of which still haunt the following generations in America. In these stories, people appear and reappear, men and women who spend their days and nights getting by working at the fiberboard or lime plant, the flour mill, oil refinery, or loading docks with occasional forays to Duluth, Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., and Milwaukee.
Chief among the recurring characters is kindhearted Eddie Bronkowski, would-be professional heavyweight boxer, eventually brain-damaged, deserted by his wife, and working as a deckhand on the Henry L. Stimson, a Great Lakes freighter. Other players include Eddie's father and brother, both changed for the worse by their military service, and his cousin Leon in Milwaukee, on the verge of losing his much-vaunted job as a "big city insurance agent."
A sense of loneliness, failed prospects and obsolescence pervades the stories, from smashed-up Eddie — whom we follow from youth through his terrible decline — and seeping all the way back to Poland where, in 1939, Janusz Brozek, a shopkeeper, looks at the myriad images of himself created by two mirrors, and wonders "how to become the man at the far end of the reflections, the man of energy and purpose he'd been when business was better."
A somewhat brighter note is struck by Verna, once happily married to Lloyd, but who has left him after 14 years, oppressed by his increasing rigidity and silence. Signing on as a cook on the Henry L. Stimson, she finds friendship and appreciation from the crew, all victims to greater or lesser extent of fate's pitiless blows. Verna develops a gentle, intimate relationship with Eddie. But every time the ship docks in Duluth, there is Lloyd with a variety of signs begging her to come back.
As it happens, women fare better in these stories than men, foremost being "the Blondes of Wisconsin" of the collection's title — a story with more narrative drive than most of the others. The "Blondes" are a troupe of lady boxers, all escapees from hard-luck or dead-end lives. Led by a 60-something, pill-popping show woman, they take on local heroes in taverns across the Upper Midwest, luring them with such advance posters as: "HEY, YOU BIG-FAT-SLOB-SUCKING-ON-THE-32-OUNCE-CAN-OF-BEER, PREPARE TO FIGHT THE WOMAN OF YOUR DREAMS."
Bukoski's stories excel in their palpable sense of place and of their characters' lot in life. They are painfully evocative of a once thriving region, their settings the gritty, uncelebrated places where life runs raw, where someone might just haul off in snit and throw a pickled pig's foot right at you.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, also reviews for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.
The Blondes of Wisconsin: Stories
By: Anthony Bukoski.
Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press, 151 pages, $16.95.
Event: In conversation with poet Jayson Iwen, 7 p.m. May 26, Magers & Quinn, Facebook Live and M&Q on YouTube.