An Interview with Anthony Bukoski, Introduction

Anthony Bukoski is one of the finest living fiction writers in America.  Born and reared in Superior (Wisconsin)—a town often considered the cultural nadir of the Upper Midwest—he is the opposite of the mouse, which in the Latin tale emerged from a mountain:  He is the lion that came out of the molehill of rusting grain elevators and abandoned trainyards, the city with the greatest number of bars per capita probably in the world and a house of ill fame known across the world.

He attended Superior State University (which is what everyone called it before they started putting on airs)  before joining the Marines for a three year holiday excursion in Vietnam, he returned to graduate from the school where he would later spend many years teaching.  After studying at Brown and at the University of Iowa, he spent some time teaching in at the University of Northwestern Louisiana in Nachitoches, before making the fateful decision to live out his days in the grim ruins of Superior.  As the old joke goes about the man whose doctor told him to give up wine, women, and song, "You may not live longer!,  but it will seem longer."

Bukoski has become the chronicler of the Polish American experience and of life in Middle America. But his work is far more than mere local color or ethnic sentimentalism. He is a deeply spiritual man: Catholic in background and in outlook but also Catholic in the vein of St. Francis, he is filled with compassion for human suffering and also for the miseries of small animals and insects. He is also endowed with a sly sense of humor that makes his stories work on several levels.

I first met Tony Bukoski some years back, when I decided to turn a fishing trip with Billy Mills into a sentimental journey.  Mills and I were staying in a small cabin near the Brule River, whose trout population we did little to diminish, and Billy, a notable writer of fiction and outdoor adventures, had asked a Wisconsin writer he knew if there were any writers in Douglas County.  I told him he was wasting his time, because the people I knew who stayed in Superior hardly read, much less wrote anything.  I believe the choice he got was between an Asian Lesbian and a Polish-American.  I sighed, “Let’s go with the Polak.  (Bukoski is offended by the term Polak, which is why I use it.). 

We met in a bar on Tower Avenue in S’perior a little before noon, and we broke up the party at another bar (The Anchor, I believe, some time after midnight.). It is a good thing that Mills was a better driver than he was a fly fisherman, or we’d have been a small addition to the DUI casualty statistics in the state with the highest consumption of beer and brandy in these  United States.  Since then, I have read all or most of Bukoski’s published short stories collected in such volumes as Time Between Trains, Polonaise, and Twelve Below Zero.  His latest book, Head of the Lakes, is culled from the earlier volumes. 

I used to think of him as Wisconsin's Faulkner, but Faulkner had it comparatively easy, drawing on the rich traditions of Mississippi.  In fact, Bukoski has been strongly influenced by Southern writers, and his work has been praised by my late friend, George Garret, one of the finest American writers of the postwar era.  Now I think of  Bukoski as more like Tolkien, a writer who drew on his knowledge and experience to create a world that was both rooted in the familiar and yet completely fantastic. I am proud to count myself his friend, and he is planning (he assures me) to lecture on Shakespeare at the next Fleming Foundation Summer School, which begins July 8, 2019.

If you are not already a devoted reader, you can do no better than to order Head of the Lakes.   It is available from Amazon and directly from Nodin Press

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

3 Responses

  1. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I have been trying to insert a photo of the author for over a half hour, but nothing works. Either the wifi is too weak or the portrait too true-to life. On the off chance it is the wifi, I’ll try again in the morning, when it is stronger.

  2. David Wihowski says:

    I have been a avid Bukoski reader, ever since Dr. Fleming introduced me to his work years ago. Despite the “ski” on the end of my name I’m German-Swedish (some immigration official converted our nationality years ago), but it is nigh impossible to live in southeastern Wisconsin without knowing and encountering many Poles. Bukoski’s stories, though they frequently remind me of the Poles I have known, are like all great fiction in that they transcend place and time (probably partially because they are so rooted in place and time). Not all of the stories are about Poles, if memory serves.
    I am eagerly awaiting the interview.

  3. Ken Rosenberger says:

    I too was introduced to Bukoski by Dr Fleming (much as he was responsible for suggesting Garret, Fred Chappell, and Anthony Powell, among others) and I read a number of his stories from the volumes listed above. I will order the latest volume and look forward to seeing Mr Bukoski in July. Always a delight when a writer can transport you to another of the wonderful and ignored corners of flyover country, and make you want to visit there at your earliest convenience. What about holding a FF book weekend in Superior? A lake view, cheese, sausage, and beer? Some Brown Mumblers? What else would we need? I believe you mentioned something about more bars per capita than anywhere else. Sounds like a possibility?