In “The Shadow Players,” one of 12 stories in Anthony Bukoski’s most recent collection, Lance Corporal Pete Dziedzic returns to his childhood home in Superior, Wisconsin, after a four-year tour of duty in Vietnam. The year is 1967. Physically unscathed by the war, he finds himself adrift. His old girlfriend, tired of waiting for him, is now married. He is reluctant to follow his father’s advice and work in the local flour mill, where the old man has labored for 40 relentless years. Pete spends a lot of time avoiding his father, Al, who calls him “Glupiec” (Polish for “blockhead”). He keeps a second-hand Rambler parked next to the family garage. Although he doesn’t yet know how to drive, the car represents the possibility of escape from the bleak prospects on offer in Superior. When his father becomes gravely ill, Pete sits day and night beside his bed and makes shadow figures on the wall with his hands. One night he lights the holy candles and attempts to create a silhouette of the Black Madonna. “A crown in a flicker of candlelight is not easy to make,” he thinks. But somehow his father, drugged on morphine, seems to understand: “His hands rose into the air as if he were holding a chalice of wine, a wafer, a cup of morphine. . . . In the half-light, his hands ran gently over something only he saw.” When Al begins to mutter words in Polish that sound like “Holy Mother,” Pete understands that his amateurish shadow play has been lifted out of the mundane realm by a power greater than his: “Pete knew . . . who had entered the shadows of the bedroom to match his father’s suffering with Her own.”
What is perhaps most remarkable about this story and many others in North of the Port is how naturally and with what profound respect Bukoski portrays traditional, Christian religious faith. I can think of no other living writer of fiction, at least none of Bukoski’s literary stature, about whom one might make such a claim. Virtually all of the short stories here are suffused with the traditions of the Polish Catholicism of Bukoski’s own childhood in northwest Wisconsin, where he was born in 1945. But this richly ethnic Catholicism with its images of the Black Madonna and its Forty Hours devotions is more than just a colorful backdrop. For, by all appearances, Bukoski shares the faith of his many devout—if often comically flawed—characters. In an interview published in the 1995-96 issue of the Wisconsin Academy Review, he speaks of the bleak landscape of northwest Wisconsin, where he still lives, and of the long, harsh winters: “We struggle against this,” he says, “and I think part of the struggle, the people going to Mass, the people with religious icons at home . . . is our great struggle to find heaven.” Note the “we” and “our” in this quotation; Bukoski places no spiritual distance between himself and the people he writes about, the same people that he rubs up against every day. Nowhere in this collection is there even a trace of condescension regarding matters of faith.
On the other hand, Bukoski is clearly aware of the sometimes bizarre and superstitious manifestations of the Catholicism of the Polish diaspora and does not hesitate to leaven his fiction with them—not simply for risible effect, but because they often lend themselves to sublime metaphorical purposes. For instance, in “Gossamer Bloom,” on Assumption Day in Superior in 1950, “thousands of threadlike strands began falling from a sky as blue as the Virgin’s robes.” The old women departing Mass believe that these strands are “Jesus’ white hairs,” a sign that He is “unhappy with the world.” As the mysterious strands keep falling, a local biologist offers the scientific explanation: tree-climbing orb-web spiders are “hatching their young” and sending out threads from their abdomens. But the beautiful Magda Podgorak, married to a hardworking mill hand, takes the falling strands as a sign from Jesus that she, too, might soar aloft. After she survives a leap from a railroad trestle, young Andrzej Iwanowski understands that “something was wrong with Magda, something in her mind,” but that doesn’t stop him from forming an attachment to her that is at once spiritual and erotic. When her husband is away, Magda invites Andrzej into her house and speaks of spiritual things to him as she stands before a mirror, kissing “the image she believed was God’s.” Aroused by this, “He wished [Magda] knew what he couldn’t confess to the priest about his indecent thoughts.” But just when the reader is convinced that the relationship between Magda and the virgin Andrzej is about to blossom into a full-blown affair, Magda becomes convinced that she is destined to be a “victim soul” like St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. She speaks obsessively of flying. Then one day, she simply disappears. Some believe that she was assumed into Heaven like the Blessed Virgin. Andrzej himself seems half-convinced of that miraculous possibility. Yet, at a deeper level, Magda’s disappearance suggests a larger mystery that will one day “be revealed to us all.” In the hands of another sort of writer, such a tale would have developed into little more than an interesting study in religious mania. For Bukoski, wherever one turns there are mysteries enveloped within mysteries. Yet that awareness does not override his insistent spiritual realism. Embedded within the story there is a kernel of cautionary wisdom worthy of Aquinas. Speaking of his departed wife, Magda’s husband Felix laments: “Some won’t be happy to trust the Lord’s word. They want proof of his body on earth. If they don’t find it, they have to see for themselves if there is a Heaven.”
Bukoski has stated that one of his aims as a writer is to “mark the passing of the immigrant population that I know best.” Poles began to immigrate into Wisconsin in the 1880’s. Most went to Milwaukee, but thousands more settled along the southwestern reaches of Lake Superior. Because the soil in that region is poor, few became farmers. Instead, they became longshoremen, seamen, and mill hands; they worshiped in Polish-American parishes; and they sent their children to Polish Catholic schools, like St. Adalbert’s in Superior, where Bukoski and his father before him were students. In recent decades the unique ethnic identity that once characterized the region has begun to fade. In the early 1980’s, the Polish parish churches of the diocese were closed and razed by Bishop George Hammes. The official reason given was a shortage of priests, but Bukoski implies (in the Wisconsin Academy Review interview) that there may have been other reasons. While he does not elaborate, I suspect that these intensely ethnic parishes (and their schools) may have fallen victim to the aggiornamento ushered in by Vatican II. More recently, the mills and factories that once provided employment to so many have also begun to close. Thus, many among the most recent generation of young Poles have moved elsewhere.
Traces of such changes are evident in several of Bukoski’s stories. In one of these, “The Wally Na Zdrowie Show” (an earlier version of which appeared in these pages in the October 2006 issue), an aging accordion player and erstwhile Polka star laments the closing of the Polish Club (for lack of members) and the hardboard factory where he once labored. With arthritic hands he fills his house with the strains of “Dreamer’s Waltz” and plays the nursing home circuit, where the dying Poles of his own generation still thrill to the sounds of “I’m From Planet Polka.” He writes to his son, who has long since moved away, that he’s thinking of selling the accordion to make ends meet.
More often than not, the fictions in North of the Port do not dwell on such changes. Instead, Bukoski lovingly, comically probes the passions and frailties of working-class Poles, lifting them out of obscurity and bestowing upon them a surprising dignity. In one of the most poignant, and hilarious, pieces, “Antoni Kosmatka Resists the Goddess of Love,” an aging Guardian of the Sick at the Superior Polish Club desperately tries to rouse the club’s members from a long stupor of inactivity. Old men, they no longer seem to have any interest in Christmas parties, dances, or Lenten fish fries. Then one night Anthony Kosmatka convinces them to travel to a Duluth strip club where Miss Nude Poland has been engaged. The men require little persuading. But for Anthony, the trip proves to be an embarrassing disaster. Among other misfortunes, he falls hopelessly in love with Miss Nude Poland. On the following day, a “Shaming Ordinance” arrives in his mailbox. Such ordinances are supposed to shame people into keeping up their property, but since the Kosmatkas have been responsible property owners, they are mystified. Anthony suspects, to his horror, that he is being shamed for his rather undignified behavior at the strip club. But after 42 years of marriage to the nagging Mrs. Kosmatka, his obsession with Miss Nude Poland overcomes his shame. He repeatedly calls the strip club and proposes to run away with the stripper. He packs a suitcase, to Mrs. Kosmatka’s bewilderment, and waits on the front porch beneath the Polish flag, certain that Miss Nude Poland will call for him. After four days, he finally awakens to his foolishness, but not without a degree of self-deception: “He told himself he’d been sorely tempted by a goddess of love, but remained faithful to his wife because the Polish club requires her members to conduct themselves as gentlemen.” In Bukoski’s fictional world, even aging fools are capable of attaining a momentary state of grace. The look of pity on his forgiving wife’s face makes Anthony see how even the shaming ordinance with his name spelled in the Polish way (Antoni) is a “holy sign.” Humiliated, he carries his suitcase “into the house where his beloved wife was cooking a hearty supper of spare ribs, sauerkraut, and boiled potatoes.”
North of the Port is Bukoski’s fifth collection of short stories; the first, Twelve Below Zero, appeared in 1986. In spite of the rare quality of his talent, he has received precious little critical attention from the literary establishment. Apparently, our fashionable multiculturalism is willing to embrace almost any manifestation of cultural diversity, so long as it isn’t quite so ethnic as Polish-American Catholicism. Is there an ugly truth hidden in this? If so, perhaps it is this: At the heart of the diversity cult lies a vacuous sterility. It lauds ethnic difference only when it has been, so to speak, properly castrated and persuaded to dance on cue for the deracinated denizens of the Global Village. Bukoski, bless his heart, will have none of this. His attention to place, to a particular people and cultural tradition, is something we need more of these days. Fifty years ago, masters of the short story such as Peter Taylor, Flannery O’Connor, and J.F. Powers managed to find major publishers and an avid audience of appreciative readers. Bukoski’s work, though it may lack something of the philosophical and theological reach of O’Connor’s, or the stylistic compression of Powers’, deserves to be mentioned in that august company. And the Southern Methodist University Press should be congratulated for its continued willingness to publish its impressively packaged editions of this writer’s splendid productions.
[North of the Port, by Anthony Bukoski (Dallas: Southern Methodist University) 192 pp., $22.50]