This Issue Back Issues Editorial Board Contact Information


Twelve Below Zero

Sally Boss

By Anthony Bukoski. Second expanded edition. Preface by Barton Sutter. Duluth, MN: Holy Cow! Press (, 2008. 161 pages. ISBN 978-0-9779458-7-0. Paper. $14.95.

The place of action is the far north, the Lake Superior area to be exact. The time? Sometimes it is the present, at other times it is the 1950s when one could still find the kind of wilderness that seems to have now disappeared, conquered by tourist motels and vacation homes around the Great Lakes. Or perhaps the time of action is anytime, and northern cottages and saloons are conjured up by the writer’s imagination and placed casually in the “anywhere, anytime” space of magic realism. Sometimes it seems that the story takes place in the nineteenth century, except that some of the characters occasionally drive trucks. The title story locates the time of action in the 1950s. The author intimates that at that time such places as End-of-the-Line Café or Two Heart settlement existed.

Bukoski has been called “a sure-handed, lyrical writer” by the New York Times Book Review. As Barton Sutter put it, his primary theme is heartache. Many of his stories are about Polish Americans, and he is primarily known for his heartbreaking narratives about retired or fired factory workers who eke out a living in the dying little towns of northern Wisconsin. But this collection of stories-some of which had been published before in a volume under the same title-is different from the rest of Bukoski’s work. It focuses primarily on Scandinavian Americans and their settlements in Wisconsin and Minnesota. These are tough people; more often than not, they live in cottages and cabins deep in the northern forest and come to town to drink and be rowdy in the town’s saloon. While Polish Americans huddle together and attend the Kosciuszko Lodge meetings, these Swedes and Norwegians nurse family tragedies and psychological scars in deep isolation. Sometimes they commit suicide (Polish Americans rarely do); at other times they live on, enveloped in tragedies we learn about from the narrator’s discrete hints. Also unlike Polish Americans, they engage in violence. The best stories in the collection, “Hello from Ture” and “Ice Days,” are examples. Bukoski must have been raised somewhere in-between the Polish and Scandinavian communities in Wisconsin, because his ability to capture the dark Scandinavian moods is nearly perfect. Or perhaps he imbibed this dark atmosphere from the works of August Strindberg or Henrik Ibsen, or he traveled in Sweden and Norway and visited Nasjonalmonumentet «Bukkerittet» in Rondablikk that shows Peer Gynt’s impossible longings and his crazy flight. I was struck by Bukoski’s knowledge of Scandinavian detail. In “Ice Days” the mother remembers licking her husband’s sick eyes; in Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, Kristin licks the sick eyes of her second son, who suffered from bad sight since babyhood and eventually became blind. In the medieval north licking was the only remedy mothers had at their disposal.

There is one story in the collection that differs from others: “The Pulaski Guards.” It deals with the narrator’s grandmother, who came to America from Poland at age ten. We encounter her as she lies dying in a nursing home, abandoned by all but one of her numerous children and grandchildren.The tenderness and gentleness of this story differentiate it from William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” even though both stories adumbrate the misery of dying in solitude and the poignancy of the injustices of fate.

These are not stories for ladies who lunch. They are about lonely men, occasionally women, who live on the edge. Their heroes or heroines live in rented rooms or in cabins far away from town. They have few friends. Whenever they have a couple of dollars they go to places where they can buy company while drinking and eating. Family life eludes them, but sex does not. They settle in inhospitable places, away from big towns where opportunity beckons. They do not eat a healthy diet and do not count calories or drinks, do not ponder how to adopt a healthier lifestyle so as to live longer. They treat their lives as if they were disposable paper plates. In the northern wilderness (twelve below zero!) where they were discovered by the narrator, there is little to entertain them: no television in this pretelevision age, no football, not even movie theaters because the settlements are small. No buses to take them home-they have to walk home in the cold and dark every single day. Their occupations as lumberjacks, loggers, hunters, trappers, mill workers and traveling handymen are not conducive to having wives and children: money is scarce, and they are often away from home. The atmosphere of Bukoski’s saloons is that of the frontier; as recently as a half-century ago one could live a frontierlike life in some parts of the United States.

The men are desperately lonely. By the standards of middle-class society, their lives are worthless. This is the material, one suspects, of which much of the armed forces and jail populations are composed. The reader sees these men as if through a veil that shields the coarseness and brutality of their lives and infuses them with melancholy, sadness, and delicacy. The title story narrates the life of a lonely workman who once kissed a much younger man in a bar. To avenge herself on him, the younger man’s wife wounds him and leaves him to freeze in subzero weather. The poignancy of a wasted life, and similar lives surrounding it, is almost palpable.

There is a profound difference between these stories and those about Polish Americans in Bukoski’s other collections. Polish Americans are mild and invisible; Scandinavian Americans are loud and noticeable. Yes, Poles too went to Vietnam and served in other wars, and sometimes did heroic things, but upon return they blended into the grey life of their communities rather than trying to be remembered. They are losers, in the common sense of the word. They fail to keep up with the Joneses. The local papers forget about them and the national papers never got a clue. Scandinavian Americans at least rebel against the injustices of fate. They are loud and their fists are heavy; they depart this world not with a whimper but with a bang. They kill each other when their wives are unfaithful, or just because they bear a grudge aginst someone. Poles do not do such things in Bukoski’s stories or in real life. Have you noticed that all the stories about bizarre crimes from the Chicago area usually concern non-Polish neighborhoods? Bukoski’s characters reflect these trends. They are dreamers, but while Polish dreamers end their lives in obscurity, Scandinavian dreamers usually manage to express their displeasure with life.

Bukoski may well be the best American storyteller alive. Sherwood Anderson has been invoked by critics for comparison; but the author of Winesburg, Ohio is now read mostly in English literature courses. Bukoski is with us here and now, bringing us people who act out life’s most important moments. The measure of a life’s importance is not how well that person succeeded in keeping up with the Joneses, but how deeply he or she felt and understood what life is all about.

Apart from Anderson, there are echoes of Flannery O’Connor here, as horrible things happen to ordinary people and are narrated in whispers and understatements. Another feature that connects Bukoski to Flannery O’Connor is an awareness that there may be something bigger and more important than individual characters, something they grope for, unaware that it even exists. The works of many Catholic writers share this undertone. Finally, Bukoski’s technique owes something to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and also to William Faulkner’s novels, with their layers of narration from diverse characters and from the narrator himself. Speaking of writers, Huysmans’s À rebours crops up in one story, horribly misspelled; I was not sure whether the misspellings were intentional or accidental.

Bukoski writes about outsiders, schlemiels, marginal people whose histories do not appear in newspapers unless one of them dies a spectacularly grim death. He makes us understand that such people sometimes best exemplify the puzzles of life. The inch-deep culture of American suburbia hides the tragedies that misery etches clearly on the outcasts’ faces. Bukoski recovers the human story and presents it to us. This recovery and presentation give his books the kind of authenticity that is missing all too often in fiction published by magazines with politically correct zip codes.

Back to the January 2009 Issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 2/21/09