Fearful Symmetries

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23 June, 2010

Twelve Below Zero by Anthony Bukoski





Anthony Bukoski grew up in a Polish neighborhood in Superior, Wisconsin and, after many years returned there where he teaches English at UW-Superior and writes short stories which evoke his hometown and surrounding area. I picked up a copy of the revised edition Twelve Below Zero at the Wisconsin Book Festival a couple years ago and recently finished reading it. The collection is Bukoski's first.

I'm not a big short story reader for whatever reason nor do I read a lot of general fiction so this book was a bit off the beaten path for me. For people in a similar position, the best way for me to describe it that it reminded me of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio but that there were also moments of Philip K. Dick's Confessions of a Crap Artist. The former sprung to mind in Bukoski's depiction of small town life while the latter did so in certain stories with narrators who relate the problems of others.

There are a dozen stories here with four of them new to the revised edition. To steal a line from the DJ in "Your Hit Parade", Bukoski writes of memory, recalling the past, the losses, the hurt. Going in, I wasn't really sure what to expect but I was surprised at just how much loss and hurt there was. Rather than trying to cover all 12 stories, I'll talk about a few that I particularly enjoyed.

The first is "The Pulaski Guards". It concerns Walter Stasiak who returns to his hometown of Superior after having served in the Vietnam War. Walter suffers from aimlessness. His sweetheart married someone else while he was away and, generally speaking, everyone that he knew has moved on without him. He joins the local Polish fraternal organization as a favor to his dying grandmother. The club, however, is on the wane. The traditions, the community, and the people that once sustained the lodge are gone or going. One member relates how the men used to wear uniforms like that of Casimir Pulaski but, now, no one remembers who he or the other big Polish hero of the American Revolution, Tadeusz Kościuszko, were.

Walter's grandmother is essentially on her deathbed and has seemingly lost her mind. At times she thinks she's back in the old country while at others she mourns to be back there. Just as her desire is futile, so are Walter's gestures at creating a life for himself now that he is back home.

I think I enjoyed this tale for a couple reasons. It hit home in a way as one of my grandmothers was Polish and she died not too long ago. Plus I am a member of the Polish Heritage Club of Wisconsin-Madison and have a similar view of fading traditions as some of the characters in the story.

"Hello from Ture" chronicles what hatred does to the title character. Big Ture lives in Two Heart, Wisconsin and is a bit of a rogue and a villain who likes to pick fights at the local watering hole. The town tolerated him until he stole a train. After this incident, the townspeople had enough and they "lashed him with rawhide until his face and body were roped with blood".

As Ture's disdain for the people of Two Heart grew out of control, he met Kruger. Kruger is a wonderfully grotesque character. He wanders into town one day and drinks away his pain for his teeth are all broken and rotted. The two befriend one another with Ture thinking of the loner as a big brother of sorts. Their vengeance is loosed one day when the pair go to town and start breaking windows. Eventually Kruger lights a fire which takes out a whole block.

The bonds wrought of this barbarity are severed when Ture discovers that Kruger has been sleeping with his sister, Helen, with whom Ture lives. This revelation makes Ture go ballistic and he beats Kruger with the butt of a shotgun. The stranger is put to bed where Helen nurses him as best she can while Ture waits for him to die.

I'm not exactly sure what it is about this story that attracts me to it. The triangle here vaguely reminds me of a situation I was in many years ago. (We all had our teeth, however.) Beyond that, I find the characters intriguing in so far as they're pretty unlikeable. Kruger with his mouthful of rotting teeth and Ture the big bully who gets his kicks by intimidating and hurting others. I felt sorry for Kruger when he got hit on the head and was left to die. Big Ture never really garnered my sympathies but I was rooting for him to change after he had found someone with whom he could commiserate but it was not to be.

This story like many of the others take place during winter which lends them this vibe of isolation. It's not that all of the characters have no one around them, but the season is a metaphor for the death that it seems many of them undergo. Not physical, but rather spiritual. Their souls seems barren. Plus I think the weather provides an impetus, of sorts, for people to look inside themselves rather than out at the world.

Although not grotesque, the protagonist of "Wesolewski, Hedwig Room 301" is just as strange. Harold Hansen owns and runs the Hotel Chopin. The Zgoda Dance Troup of Eastern Europe books a block of rooms and Harry becomes infatuated with one of the dancers, Hedwig Wesolewski. The women make a nice change of pace as Harry is used to dealing with broken hearted men. Harry obsesses over Hedwig. He fantasizes about her naked and sleeps on the stairs by her room.

The story is about a tug-of-war going on inside Harry's head where there is little that's blatant. Everything simmers near the surface. Harry admits to having done "unsavory things" in the previous hotels he's worked at. He has had to move from Chicago to Milwaukee to Oshkosh and points further north until he arrived at the Hotel Chopin in Duluth. And so there's a hint of malice lurking underneath everything as well as erotic voyeurism. Will he turn out to be a relatively harmless Michael Barrett or someone more sinister?

All in all I enjoyed Twelve Below Zero. It's refreshing to be reading stories that take place in small town Wisconsin/northern Minnesota and which don't stereotype. Generally small towns are portrayed as being populated by dumb hicks or being nothing but seedy underbelly. Bukoski populates his stories with characters that are perhaps simple on the outside, but have complex interiors. These tales, for the most part, tread the darker side but I enjoyed Bukoski's peeks behind hurt, behind longing.
|| Palmer, 2:30 PM

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