Since I was going to fish in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, I decided like any bookish person to read some books about the place. I expect I own all of Gordon Weaver’s ten or twelve books, and I went digging through them again to sec which ones were set in Wisconsin. Besides growing up in Wisconsin, Weaver lived a long time in Mississippi and then Oklahoma, and some of his fiction is set in those two states. I re-read his novel Circling Byzantium, where the action takes place in Milwaukee and upstate in the resort area around Wautoma. Then there are the short stories in his collection Such Waltzing Was Not Easy, set around wild and woolly Hayward in the Northwoods.

Asking around, I came up with the name of Anthony Bukoski, a short story writer who lives in Superior, whose grandparents were Polish immigrants. He has written two collections of stories which are jewels, Children of Strangers and Polonaise. A few of these stories reflect his Marine experience while serving in Vietnam, but the rest are about Superior and its peoples: Poles, of course, but Jews, Finns, Germans.

Since I was born in Mississippi and reared in Louisiana, much of the world Weaver and Bukoski write about is like a foreign country to me. There were largely Celtic and African people in the Mississippi I can remember, and in Louisiana Cajun French and Italian as well. I remember being in a school play with a kid I thought was German because he had a slight accent and only discovered as an adult that he was a German Jew whose family had made it out in the late 30’s. I feel sure there must have been some Poles and other Germans, but we did not know about them. Thus in World War II, there were no problems like the ones in St. Louis, Chicago, or Wisconsin, where there were many Germans. In St. Louis, streets with German names were often renamed, one after General Pershing. When Germany invaded Poland, my family had been living briefly in Buffalo, New York, and I remember my father saying that we must return to the South now that there was going to be a war. For me, then, Milwaukee and northern Wisconsin have the fascination of another world.

Most of the stories by both writers have urban settings, and even when hunting, the woods, or Indians come into play, the characters always return to town. In Circling Byzantium, families come from Milwaukee or Chicago to a lake resort but must return to the city to make a living. One old character observes that the resort is there “to separate a Yahoo from his money during his annual two weeks free of the chains they use to keep them at their machines in Chicago and Milwaukee factories.” This same character, Leland Spaulding, Jr., was a boy before World War I and remembers the lake area as serene and idyllic, with only five or six cottages around the lake. But all this will change later, none of it for the good. Meanwhile, his family goes to a bar and restaurant. Otto Pfaff s Moose Inn, where on display is the head of the last moose killed in Wisconsin, a telling icon.

“Granger Hunting,” Weaver’s story set around Hayward, concerns a divorced father trying to re-establish connections with his sons, meeting them at his hunting camp in the wild Northwoods. The father tries to teach his youngest son to track and kill deer, but the whole attempt fails. The boy loses the compass, the father is lost, and an Indian has to guide them back.

The presence of Indians is felt in the stories of both writers. In Weaver’s work, the Indian still hunts (often illegally) and possesses woodscraft. In Bukoski’s stories, some of the old ways are still there, but so is the alcohol and the tension over treaty rights and fishing. At the fringes of Bukoski’s town of Superior there is still hunting. In the bizarre story “Dry Spell,” a one-time Catholic deacon is now freelancing as a priest. He hears confessions and does spiritual healing for his neighbors. The Catholic faith has fallen on hard times in Superior, with only one church left (at least in the story), and it is too far away for the rural people. This freelance priest has bought the statues of the closed churches and lined them up on his property. As part of absolution for a client, he takes the “penitent” through a grove of birches, where the client is horrified to see a deer hanging.

The deer’s carcass has been gnawed. “The one dog, the tan one, is at the chest now. The two black dogs are full of blood. “Things seem more direct with these boyce. The boyce rim down weak deer, kill them, feed right on the blood with the crows and other eaters. Humans create sin but don’t taste God’s Blood. When the wild boyce eat right in front of us what they found, they are a lesson to us about His Body.”

It is the Polish-American world and Superior that Bukoski focuses on primarily, and very often it is not a happy place. The iron ore and coal industry that had made the city a bustling port have fallen on hard times. Many people are on welfare, and only the bar business seems to thrive. Tower, the main street, is lined with bars, most of them full. Bars are the setting for much of the work of both writers. In Bukoski’s very dark story, “The Tomb of the Wrestlers,” a 19-year-old character. Bob Harris, imagines a postcard for Superior.

Weeds that grow over rusted tracks . . . no diesels slowing for the crossings . . . no ore boat whistles ever piercing the foggy noon . . . steel work ain’t good anymore. This is Superior, a town where the only thing left are the drinkers and drunks.

Another postcard:

Superior, Wisconsin, pop. 28,000, has two, actually three things to set it apart. It has 1) the highest rate of alcoholism per capita for any city of its size in the country; 2) the “World’s Largest Freshwater Sandbar,” which is a long sandy beach bordered by the lake on one side and a bay on the other; and 3) the “World’s Largest Ore Docks,” which are three in number, but only one in actual use.

Harris helps his father in the bar and is propositioned by a man who can offer only a box of government cheese. “It’s all I’ve got. No money left, and I heard you were an understanding kid.” Harris refuses on the grounds that he has to have at least beer money. Incidentally, Harris’ mother was a prostitute for many years, working at 314 John St. In a darkly comic scene, an old Canadian sailor had propositioned Harris three years earlier, and the homosexual experience is described in nautical terms such as “‘Steady now . . . steady as she goes. All ahead one-third?’ ‘All ahead,’ I repeated.” As I said, it is a dark story.

The world gets darker still when the old people’s stories are told, as in “Mrs. Burbul.” During World War II, Mrs. Burbul had been held prisoner in a camp where the cook was Polish. He made her strip and raped her, rewarding her with the better cuts of horsemeat, a piece of potato, a rutabaga. When the guards ran away at the end of the war, she and others pulled the cook down, spit on him, kicked him, and likely killed him with a shovel. Now these memories haunt her, and she continues to ask for forgiveness, wandering endlessly about the fields.

There are other powerful stories that convey the alien experience of being an immigrant while yearning for the old country of one’s parents, one’s friends. One character sums up the anguish in “The Korporal’s Polonaise.”

Above us, in a church that is to close, the despairing priest prepares for his last Palm Sunday as I open the music box on the table and find a lock of my father’s precious white hair. Now the Polonaise he loved begins to play, but we cannot go back to him. We cannot return to the Old Country. All we have are graves and crosses.

The partition of Poland in 1939, the deportation of 1.7 million Poles from the Soviet sector, and the Nazis’ transportation of 1.3 million Poles to Germany for use as slave labor in factories provide the background for “Polack Joke,” the third section of Weaver’s Circling Byzantium. An old Polish immigrant and bar owner, Mary Janka, receives an answer to the last of her many inquiries about her family. She is found crying one day by her employee, Romy Lewinski, after a refugee identification committee wrote that “What was left of her family had disappeared, must be presumed dead.”

Lewinski is not a pretty Pole, but he is a very believable character. He is part of the force that destro’s the tranquillity’ of the lake at Wautoma. He inherits the bar from Mary Janka, but no money. Of the $111,000 she saved, she left some for perpetual Masses for herself at Saint Casimir’s, $5,000 to the Milwaukee County Democratic Council, and the balance was split down the middle between the Polska-Amerikanski Refugee Relief Committee and the Little Sisters of the Poor. Yet Lewinski makes a go of the place, sells it to buy the rundown resort at Wautoma, and proceeds to turn that into the tacky thing Americans have come to know as “fun parks”—a post-Disney, Eisner version.

Instead of retreating into memory as Spaulding does, Lewinski is a go-getter, a “man with a plan.” a futurist who has no roots in the community of this summer resort and is there only to make a killing. Spaulding remarks to another character, “I’ve vet to meet the man could define the word ‘progress’ to my satisfaction.” The town fathers of Wautoma are complicit in Lewinski’s big plans, for they see all the taxes he’s going to pay and the jobs he’s going to create.

In Bukoski’s work, as in Weaver’s, there are the overriding motifs of time and the falling away of the world which was the first half of this century. Not only has Poland receded for the immigrants, Superior itself has declined and decayed. Much of Bukoski’s fiction is a meditation on mutability and a skepticism about the future. This meditation on time becomes an obsession for one character in “The World at War.”

Living with my parents in Superior, Wisconsin, I begin to collect timepieces. In my room are a Sessions wall clock, a Westclox Baby Ben with two alarms, a Sunbeam with a lighted dial to shine the way—these and a few other watches and clocks, all of them wound and running. “Why you don’t study time for a living?” [his father] asks.

This is exactly what Bukoski and Weaver have done as artists, study time for a living.

Bukoski’s work is dense with allusions and direct references to time, but I shall single out only two more representative stories. In “Tango of the Bearers of the Dead,” the principal character is a Polish immigrant, a woman, who has committed adultery and whose memory of this and her 50 years of marriage is blackened by what she has done. Her husband, now dying in a hospital bed in Superior, had suffered great travail when he deserted from the Russian army and worked his wav to join her in Wisconsin, and her adultery always stood between them, though he remained a faithful husband and provider. A watch given by her father, to be given to her husband, had been given to her lover who sold it in a pawn shop; now the watch symbolizes that time long ago and the 50 years since her betrayal. She says to her grandson who is insistent on hearing about his grandfather: “I want you to forget . . . all the things that embarrass a family and make it small. Bear your dead some other way. I am done remembering.” She considers silently, “Where do things go when they’re no longer remembered?”

The title story, “Children of Strangers,” is built around a church party honoring a nun who has spent her life teaching the Polish students of St. Adalbert’s School. The neighborhood of St. Adalbert’s, like many Catholic neighborhoods ill America, has declined and been taken over by strangers. One of the old parents wonders to herself. Where do these children of strangers come from—Brule? Iron River? The party is held in the gym, and during it two ruffians enter, ignore the old people, begin to shoot baskets, then help themselves to the food on the tables. For one character in particular, it is a traumatic, vision-changing experience—the two young thugs look right through him.

His thinking about the future . . . changes now. More and more in the coming days, he sees in this vision of a world without depth, riots will be tearing cities apart, and presidents and dignitaries will be seized and put upon. . . . Now he’s suddenly becoming frightened of looking ahead.

I did not catch any big fish in Wisconsin (all would have lived comfortably in a goldfish bowl), but I enjoyed canoeing the Brule and listening to its rushing water while my guide abandoned me looking for dragonflies for his collection. However, I fished two big literary talents and listened to them. What we hear in both artists are the clarion sounds of apocalypse. Both wield fine satiric weapons and possess a rollicking comic humor, including ethnic humor, in spite of the speech police. (Recently, an East Coast editor rejected a friend’s story because she used Southern black speech for some of the characters—he scolded her by explaining that his magazine does not do that anymore.) Some may find the satire and the action in Weaver and Bukoski dark, a bit much for their genteel tastes, but where shall they turn? To Eastern European history of the last hundred years, or the transcript of the impeachment of our current President? Each of these artists has tracked the spoor of those in his neck of the woods, and from the detritus of crudity and cruelty, hate and love, each has fashioned tables that may lead to our redemption.