The Blondes of Wisconsin–Bukoski’s Best
In recent decades Anthony Bukoski has emerged as one of the best writers of short fiction, not just in America but in the English language. He has turned the ugly streets of his native Superior, Wisconsin, into a literary landscape as mythical as Faulkner’s Mississippi and Tolkiens Middle Earth and populated it with unforgettable characters whose failures and follies are redeemed by their self-respect and their capacity for love.
Of his earlier collections, I wrote previously:
Anthony Bukoski is one of the finest fiction writers in America. Stolidly remaining in the grim ruins of Superior, Wisconsin, he 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. He is a deeply spiritual man: Catholic in background 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.
In The Blondes of Wisconsin, Bukoski has taken three major steps forward. In the first place, his prose-always taut and graphic—has been wrought into the chiseled perfection of great sculpture and great verse without losing the rhythms of dark ironic comedy that he mastered in his earliest stories. Here is a typical passage describing a bar on Superior’s dockside:
The bar stands near a squealing belt that hauls taconite from an inland facility, through a neighborhood, then out to a dock. It’s a mile-and-a-half journey. The beige-colored tin encasing the belt is red with the ore dust it was built to contain. A sign on the dust-streaked building below the belt reads, “Clean out Pit #4.” According to a sign in the parking lot, tonight’s event, “The Bash in the Belt,” is cosponsored by the Whoop ’n Holler Tavern and a beer distributor.
In addition, Blondes is more than a collection of stories, since most of them are integrated, not only by the moral theme that runs through them, but through a series of interlocking characters. In this respect, the book is more like Faulkner’s The Unvanquished , a kaleidoscopic fictional narrative, than it is a collection.
Finally, the character that ties the pieces together is his most moving discovery. I say “discovery,” because most readers, by the time they are halfway through Blondes, will have come to believe that they have known Ed “Bronco” Bronkowski all his life.
Ed, if we were reading his obituary in the Superior Evening Telegram, was born on the East Side of Superior. His father Frank, who had served in the Polish cavalry back in the old country, worked in the flour mill, and his brother joined the Marines. Ed became a spectacularly unsuccessful fighter, whose brain injuries rendered him unfit for even the most menial jobs, but in the course of the stories we get to know him as a man worthy of respect. In the title story, we see him through the eyes of a third party, when he comes out of retirement to box a woman fighter—one of troupe of female barroom boxers known as “The Blondes of Wisconsin.” His muscles remember just enough to connect with the Viking heroine, who disarms the poor chump by throwing him a kiss before she clobbers him.
The scene is funny and sad, but Ed’s brain-damaged courage and chivalry send the new manager into reveries about taking the battered pug on the road with the Blondes.
Bukoski’s stories are often misread as depressing or cynical, sometime by people who should know better. All his stories, especially the stories in this collection, are alive with the promise of charity and hope.