Interview With Anthony V. Bukoski, Part One

Thomas Fleming

By

January 31, 2019

TJF: You are a fictional chronicler of the Polish-American experience, but you have chosen to localize your stories, most of which either take place in Superior, Wisconsin, or have a character from Superior’s East End. Tell me a little about the Superior you grew up in.

AVB: I was born in a port city at the western terminus of the Great Lakes. When I was in grade school and high school in the 1950’s and early ’60s, Superior had the world’s largest ore docks, huge grain terminals, shipyards, mills, railroad yards, and a stinking oil refinery, still the only one in Wisconsin. We had a steel plant, whorehouses, taverns, a Finnish newspaper, Tyomies, a synagogue, ethnic parishes, and ethnic lodges such as the Vasa for Swedes, the Norona for Norwegians, and the Thaddeus Kosciuszko Fraternal Aid Society for Poles. My father and uncles belonged to the Polish Club. I’ve belonged for years.

My hometown is a city of neighborhoods. Many Belgians lived in Allouez. Pronounced “Al-o-weeze” or “Al-o-wheeze,” it sounds like someone choking on ore dust. I’m not kidding. You can see ore dust streaks on the sides of houses. Poles and others inhabited the East End and the Midtown--neighborhoods which had, and have, their own air-quality problems. A section of the latter neighborhood at the end of Cedar Avenue by the Dew Drop Inn was known as the “Gas Plant.” Three ethnic churches stood in the Midtown and East End, Sts. Cyril and Methodius for Slovaks, St. Adalbert’s and St. Stanislaus for Poles. Itasca, Central Park, South Superior, Billings Park, the downtown, and the North End were other neighborhoods with other churches. Some of these neighborhoods had ethnic enclaves.

Back then, the houses and parks of Superior were maintained. City workers planted petunia beds and trimmed wild rose hedges. We had a busy downtown and Class-C minor league baseball. I consider myself blessed and, in a way, cursed to have been raised here. Psychologically and emotionally, I’ve never been able to leave. When my wife and I have lived in other places, I longed for the non-existent spring, rainy summer, and never-ending winter of Superior. The seasons can shape people in such a way as to make them either escape Superior, tolerate it, or fall in love with it and stay for the long haul. To many of us, there’s something valuable here. In Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Dr. Reefy describes the people of Winesburg who go through the apple orchards after the commercial pickers have taken the best fruit to market. The latecomers know that gnarled fruit is sometimes sweetest, and so they collect the fruit the pickers don’t want. “Only the few know the goodness of the twisted apples,” Dr. Reefy says. I could use this metaphor to describe why I never want to leave Superior.

TJF: How did Superior change from the 1950’s to the collection of dying neighborhoods, unpainted houses, and rusting factories it became?

AVB: I don’t know when things went bad. The economy didn’t concern me in grade school, although I understood the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway to foreign vessels would benefit the shipping trade. With the Seaway operational, grain from the Midwest could be shipped from Duluth-Superior to overseas markets. When I graduated from Superior Cathedral High in 1963, the economy was okay. The refinery was going strong. It was a good economic sign that sulfur dioxide stank up the East End because it meant there was work. At the same time, Hog Island Inlet at the mouth of the bay was becoming one of the most polluted inlets on the Great Lakes, mainly from refinery effluents. Maybe in my adolescent mind I suspected something was amiss, a downturn coming, when Canadian tankers no longer put in at the oil dock a mile from our house. The minor league baseball team left town. On the other hand, my dad was getting in his hours at the flour mill.

Amid all this, change was coming. It took probably ten years—say, the decade of the 1970s--for the Tower Avenue business district to fall apart except, of course, for the taverns which did a booming business. I’d begun noticing “Superior” associated with the phrase “economically depressed.” The decline has gone on forever. Much of the Northern Pacific ore dock in East End has been torn down, the wood and steel sold for salvage or scrap. Only one of the docks in Allouez is working. Occasionally, an ore carrier puts in there to load taconite pellets. The flour mill in East End doesn’t process anything. The last I heard, its silos stored barley. Fewer ocean-going ships put into port. Businesses have closed. We have no K-Mart, no Target. Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy’s, and Quiznos are gone. In April 2018, an explosion at the oil refinery forced people to evacuate parts of town. In December 2018 on the waterfront in the North End, a fire destroyed what was once the world’s largest grain elevator.

I’ve written a lot of short stories about a deteriorating city. Consider one: “Rain. Fog. A Harbor City.” In the slips behind the North Third Street taverns in the story, lake carriers rust as they await the cutting torch. Railroad tracks rust. In the Gas Plant area, the globe that stores natural gas rusts. So, too, does the wife of a drunken businessman, a bar owner. He encourages his wife’s oxidation by running the humidifier in the house, by taking her for walks when the icy streets have been salted, and by insisting she use the pressure cooker to prepare meals, thereby producing more steam in the kitchen. With her rusted, he’ll be able to drink without her nagging him. Despite his dad’s telling him to the contrary, the son in the story insists the red-lesions on his mother’s arms are beautiful red roses when in fact they’re rust.

Anyway, I view Superior as a decaying, benighted place that I love.

TJF: Do you think that a backwater like Superior, despite its obvious drawbacks, has some advantages for a writer?

AVB: It’s no drawback to write about my hometown. I have the luxury of exploring and reimagining a place that other writers wouldn’t care for. Superior is interesting geologically, geographically, climatologically, botanically, architecturally, and in many other ways. We live in a basin on the edge of the world’s largest body of fresh water. In most directions, hills surround us, for instance, to the west the 1.1-billion-year-old “Duluth Gabbro Complex” of tall, gray, rocky hills, or the range of hills to our south. As they breast the hills, visitors marvel at the fogbanks that sometimes form over the city below. Though the summer day may be warm in Brule or Lake Nebagamon, not so in the lowlands, where Lake Superior influences the weather. The cool, often-wet summers, the winters, the ore and cement docks, the refinery effluents, the old houses and rust, Al-o-whe-e-e-ze which sounds like an aging drunk with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder trying to explain where he lives—these and other things play on my imagination. 

I think Superiorites are as worthy as people anywhere to be celebrated in fiction. We’re as venal, generous, high-minded, proud, pious, industrious, despairing, hopeful for the future. Because as a story writer I’ve written about my beloved city—or its East End neighborhood—for many years now, what else can I write about? I don’t belong anyplace but here. The characters I write about are similarly rooted to place. For example, in “A Geography of Snow” from Time Between Trains (2003; reprinted 2011), a Marine bound for Vietnam plans to take a topographical map with him, a map of “the NE/4 Superior 15’ Quadrangle of Superior, Wisconsin.” If he’s wounded or dying, he can console himself by remembering how aspen trees smell after a warm spring rain and how the Nemadji, the “Left-Handed River,” winds its way to the bay.

Thomas Fleming

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

13 Responses

  1. Roger McGrath says:

    The McGraths lived at 1025 Oakes Ave. and at 1813 N. 14th St. in Superior–but that was 80-125 years ago. Tony may know this but as far as I can tell the Oakes house was demolished long ago to erect the Municipal Rink, which is now the Superior Ice Arena. The N. 14th house was also demolished long ago. There is now a commercial building there housing the Vocational Center for Superior. It was 20 below in Superior this morning. Tony’s made of steel.

  2. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    I have more than once proposed that the three of us establish a society, “The League of Superior Men.” Of course, Roger, who refuses even to visit the place, would be a non-voting member until he takes up my offer to show him around,

  3. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I passed through Superior when my father took us on a family camping vacation. Starting in Kenosha we traveled up through Wisconsin, passed around Superior, working our way along the north shore through Canada to Sault Ste. Marie where we entered Michigan. Then we traveled south along the east coast of Lake Michigan, looping back through Illinois to return home. We camped at various places along the way. I must have been in the 9th grade or so because I remember going to a CYO dance somewhere in Canada where I ran into a recent graduate from my high school.

    My mother’s parents were immigrants, her father from Poland and her mother from Czechoslovakia. They both died before I was borne.

  4. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Born.

  5. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Give us your impressions both os Superior and of northern Wisconsin

  6. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Dr. Fleming, this trip took place in 1962 or 1963 when I was 15 or 16.

    I said that we passed through Superior but it is more accurate to say we passed by Superior. Having been raised in Kenosha, every place else was north and west. One thing I remember about Lake Superior was that the beach consisted of small stones or pebbles, unlike the beaches of Lake Michigan in Kenosha, which were sandy. In addition, the water was very clear and cold. You could see the bottom in shallow water.

    As we were camping, we did not enter areas (towns or cities) with large populations so I remember northern Wisconsin as very forested except in an area like the kettle moraine. We did not go through that area on the trip but I went through another time with some friends and remember being a little awed thinking about the glaciers that had passed through there so long ago.

    We did go through Menominee County. The Indian reservation had been disestablished a few years earlier but there were a lot of Indians living there. (The reservation was later reestablished in the early 1970s.).

    I remember going to a dance one evening (hey – I was a teen!!) attended almost entirely by Indians my age. I danced with a pretty Indian girl a few times. Then a few Indian boys took me aside and told me that another boy who had just been released from detention of some kind was not happy with me. They told me they would take care of it and that I should enjoy myself. Apparently they were not happy with detention boy. Later I saw them go into the boys room with someone who I believe was detention boy. That was my only experience with young Menominee Indians. They were very friendly and helpful to a young white boy.

  7. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    My father was a scout leader so we would go on camping trips when I was younger. One place we went to was Wyalusing State Park. It may have been this park or one like it where I first saw water that looked like root beer. It was clear but it was colored dark from iron. It really looked like root beer when rapids gave it a white foam.

    On one trip a man who was a certified diver came along and went down some root beer rapids wearing a wet suit. That really impressed us. The diver owned and operated a vending machine company. The police would hire him whenever they needed the services of a certified diver. He could do everything from scuba to hard hat diving.

    I left Kenosha after I turned 18 and went to college. As I later married an Annapolis girl and settled here after I left active duty, I have returned to Wisconsin only for short visits.

  8. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Brendan Behan once said of Ireland that it was a great place to get a postcard from. Actually, Wisconsin is one of the realest parts of the Midwest. In the Northern parts, it is as rednecky as Louisiana. My own father was a great woodsman, but as a grown man he hated picnicking and would not dream of camping out. I took my own children camping fairly often and the only luxury permitted–no camp stove, camper, etc–was daddy’s blow-up mattress. As soon as we reached a campsite, I’d sing out, “What’s the first thing we have to do?” The answer was, put up the tents. And, the second thing was to blow up the air mattress. Imagine their chagrin when they realized I could have bought a simple pump, but where would have been t he fun in that?

  9. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    We used a couple small tents of the pop up variety that had flexible rods to hold them up. We also blew up our air mattresses with lung power. Setting up camp was always the first order of business.

    It was only later after I had left home that my father bought a small trailer. The top cranked up and the two ends dropped down to provide a bed platform on each end. It was basically a flattopped tent on wheels.

  10. Raymond Olson says:

    Tony Bukoski is criminally underrated. Whenever a new collection of his came my way when I was on staff at Booklist, I’d praise it to the skies in my review with an utterly clear conscience. I must admit, however, that the only time I ever darkened the streets of Superior were when I drove up to meet Tony for a beer and dinner. My Minnesota family vacationed regularly along the North Shore in the mid-to-late 1950s, always stopping in Duluth first but never sidestepping to Superior. I have no idea why (Tom Fleming will attribute it to Minnesotan disdain–entirely baseless–of Wisconsin), although we once proceeded to Madeleine Island farther east and another time yet farther to the UP, which, with its abandoned copper mining sites, was to me the peak experience of the family jaunts I was on.

    I need to mention that the only other story writer in Tony Bukoski’s class, by my lights, is Fred Bonnie, who set his fiction in the two states he knew best, Maine and Alabama. His collections include Too Hot and Other Maine Stories, Wide Load, Food Fights, Detecting Metal, and Widening the Road. He died suddenly in 2000, shortly after publishing his only novel, Than Ho Delivers, about a Vietnamese immigrant in Alabama; that was also not long after I met him the first and only time. He was still in his forties with a young family.

  11. Jacob Johnson says:

    I stayed in one of the hotels near the lift bridge on a family vacation in 2004. We took bicycles into Superior and went down the road which adjoins the lake for a bit and looped around. As far as I remember, the town lacked the usual array of McDonald’s/Burger King/Taco Bell etc. which makes every place one goes look like the same miserable, lethargic, concentration camp. So quite nice as far as American cities go. I liked the surrounding area quite a lot too. I’ll have to look into Mr. Bukoski’s books at some point.

  12. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I have read the first two stories in Time Between Trains. Especially liked the second one.

    Also started The Betrothed. Brothers Karamazov has always been my favorite after I first read it, but Betrothed is off to a good start after seven chapters.

  13. Ken Rosenberger says:

    Artistically, I’m no judge of what the best 19th Century novel is, but I think The Betrothed is the one I love best.

    As for Mr Bukoski, well, I’ve never been to that part of Wisconsin, but I would say he’s carved out a fair chunk of his own Yoknapatawpha North. He’s a rare find today, an original American writer. It’s good having a reason to spend money on books by a living artist.