Hope shines through in upcoming Bukoski book

A quiet fact of the Twin Ports literary scene is that between the two port cities, Superior is the subject of more interesting fiction. Speculate about the reasons if you like -- the psychodrama of its boom and bust cycle, the color of its ethnic...

A quiet fact of the Twin Ports literary scene is that between the two port cities, Superior is the subject of more interesting fiction. Speculate about the reasons if you like -- the psychodrama of its boom and bust cycle, the color of its ethnic backdrop, a certain seediness in some quarters that always makes for excitement.

But it's a compelling setting for Tom Sparrow's hardboiled fiction, for Mike Savage's mysteries. The same feel also carries into Fran Gabino's memoirs.

And then there's Anthony Bukoski, a teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Superior who grew up in Superior's Polish East End. Artistically, he's on the very top shelf with his three collections of short stories.

The third, "Time Between Trains," hits store shelves July 15. Its 13 stories span history from the present day back to at least the 1940s. And even when it travels to Da Nang, Vietnam, it carries Superior with it.

For many fiction writers, setting is mere backdrop, like in those old movies where the characters pretend to drive while a flat screen behind them tries to convey the sense of motion. Bukoski films on location. The East End of Superior in these 13 stories is as integral and essential as any of the characters or plotlines.


These stories could not exist anywhere else; the mix of shipping, railyards, Polish heritage, boom times, bust times and Green Bay Packers is probably not replicated on this planet.

Adding to this sense of place is the frequent overlapping of the stories. Some characters reappear in later stories in major or minor roles. The storylines, too, sometimes intersect. "Time Between Trains" drops the reader into a well-defined world, just as a novel would, even though each story stands on its own.

As good writers know, specificity is the key to a sense of reality; combine it with a good story and it leads to the very universality lesser writers hope to find writing about Anytown, USA. Bukoski just boldly writes about this place, this person, this time, even frequently tossing around Polish words (with deftly inserted definitions), totally unafraid of intimidating the English-only reader with a mile-long string of consonants.

Many who write about Superior emphasize its underside, treating readers to dingy bars, broken down apartments, noisy train trestles, cigarette smoke. We find plenty of such scenes in "Time Between Trains," too, but with a key difference: Bukoski's Superior is also a place where women create magical butterfly gardens hidden from sight near train tracks, where young soldiers think back on East End autumns that smell like Juicy Fruit gum. There's beauty there, too.

This is what makes "Time Between Trains" remarkable. Not all of the stories are happy ones -- "A Philosophy of Dust" is as disturbing as anything in Dostoevsky -- but many of them are eminently hopeful, in that miraculous way that seems only to be brought out of us in situations of despair.

Joe Lesczyk, in "The Moon of the Grass Fires," is stripping down an old confessional and its accumulated sin while confronting his own demons and his ill-ease with retirement, yet his story ends in a moment of extraordinary grace.

In the title story, "Time Between Trains," two lonely people, nearly out of hope, find and choose the fuller life of human relationships. In "Holy Walker," Pani Pilsudski struggles to maintain her dignity in old age even as she wrestles an overblown pride, yet finds solace.

The book closes with the president of the Polish Club -- thinking he will be the last -- acting out his title role as "President of the Past," keeping alive his father's polka music and his grandmother's language, fulfilling a father's never-spoken wish.


Out of shame and devaluation, most of the characters who populate Bukoski's stories find dignity. In despair they often find grace, in doubt, faith, and in sin, repentance. And yet, these victories often come at considerable cost and through considerable difficulty, and never by accident. Bukoski is equally unblushing in showing the consequences of not choosing faith, hope and love.

All this is no accident, I'm sure, imbued as the stories are with faith -- particularly the Catholic faith common to almost all the Polish characters. However, it's not of the casual Sunday morning variety. The miracles here are the ones that come along in real lives.

The characters are memorable and deeply drawn, the kind which stick, helped by the fact that Bukoski writes often in the first person, with distinctive voices for his characters and keen insight into their minds.

Their words ring: A priest, tormented by lust, opens his narrative with a blunt "I cannot resist Ewa Zukowski," again reminding one of Dostoevsky. Though much of the story takes places in the confessional, the story itself is a written confession.

Teenager Stefanie Karawinska ponders a saying learned from a nun, and how it relates to an injured father: "Never waste an opportunity to tell someone you love them."

"Time Between Trains" is deeply enjoyable. It's not light reading, though. Just as in modern music, we have to talk about accessibility, and while most of the stories are very accessible, a few like "Winter Weeds" (the story about the lustful priest) and "A Philosophy of Dust" rely heavily on euphemism and symbolism, requiring a fair bit of attention.

I think it's worth it. It may not be right for the beach, but it's good fodder for an evening in an easy chair.

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