The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo
Orchard Street Press, 2017
Softcover, 193 pages
I first reviewed a novel by transplanted American (now Canadian) novelist, screenwriter, locavore and pickle-maker extraordinaire, William Kowalski, in 2013 — his wonderful The Hundred Hearts — and noted, at the time, that its dissection of the heart of the American dream was apropos, considering the times. Now that American political life has descended into a circus that daily outdoes all attempts at parody, it is, perhaps, fitting that some parallels can be drawn between Kowalski’s latest literary effort and an obituary. Lest this observation seem discouragingly dire, let me rush to assure readers that all the elements for which Kowalski has been praised in the past by others — “unflappable good nature,” “gentle pacing,” and myself — clear-sighted empathy, and humour — can be found in The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo.
The organizational framework for the novel juxtaposes two stories — that of Aniela, the beginning of everything, and of Iggy who presides, funereally, over its end. In 1908, as a young peasant girl of sixteen, Aniela, the eventual revered matriarch of the Podbielski restaurant dynasty, fleeing both Prussian and patriarchal oppression, immigrates to America with her mother Sofia and two sisters, Jadwiga and Catharina. Although little effort is spared by Kowalski to impart the horrors and stench of a steerage class transatlantic passage at the dawn of the 20th century, in the end it turns out to have been worth it. The women’s risky bid to escape their bleak present was providentially timed as it also allowed them to avoid the even bleaker future which unfolded in Poland during the First World War. Their early experiences as newcomers to the land of the free are prototypical. Having landed in the Black Rock area of Buffalo (a bit of a Polish enclave) for these simple peasants every day presents an exponentially steep learning curve and they teeter continuously on the brink of novelty overload, astounded by such marvels as electric lights, laundry machines, and horseless carriages. As Aniela notes,
It wouldn’t have surprised her a bit to look out the window and see ladies’ dresses and men’s suits taking themselves for a walk, with no people inside them That was the kind of thing you came to expect in Ameryka.
By dint of hard work, cooperation and resilience (i.e the requisite input) the women begin to flourish in their new home, acquiring a financial security unimaginable back in the old country. Despite early discouraging experience with males, Aniela (eventually anglicized to Angela) marries Jan Podbielski, a sweet, smart, up-and-comer, and her future as the wife of a grocery magnate seems assured. However, after only five years of happy marriage, Aniela, mother of a four-year-old daughter and pregnant with her second child, suddenly finds herself widowed when Jan dies unexpectedly of an aneurysm. Thus her legend has its real beginning, as, true to the ideal, Aniela, with the help of her sisters and a lot of backbreaking work, prevails in the face of withering odds — managing to raise her children on her own, working first cleaning houses, and later, opening, along with her sisters, a bakery. The bakery is a huge success, due, not in small part, to the fact that its sourdough bread is made from a “mother” or starter, which Sofia managed to keep alive on the long ago voyage from the motherland, as it were. Members of the large Polish population in the neighbourhood find this living link with the old country irresistible, and eventually, on the strength of this popularity, Aniela opens the titular restaurant, a solid, no-nonsense-Polish-country-food kind of eatery, which quickly becomes the gravitational centre of the Polish community, and known as the best Polish restaurant in Buffalo, providing a good living for four generations of Podbielskis.
We first meet the forty-five-year-old Ignatz Podbielski, (Iggy for short) Aniela’s great grandson, in the fall of 2015, standing in a parking lot, staring unprepossessingly at his equally unprepossessing restaurant. A stubborn anachronism which refused to evolve, Angela’s restaurant’s glory days are now a distant memory — as are Iggy’s. Nominally a family-owned enterprise, Angela’s has, for quite some time, existed solely as a result of Iggy’s unimaginative but unwavering devotion to the idea and ideals of the restaurant and of his heroic great grandmother, a portrait of whom still presides. Having had the bad luck of being handed the reins from his father just as the business started to wane, the result, in large part, of the inevitable succession inherent in any immigrant story — a gradual die-off of its natural clientele — homesick (but thrifty) Polish immigrants in search of a decent (and, of course, reasonably priced) old-fashioned Polish meal, Iggy finds himself presiding over the last days of the Podbielski empire, a time when simple adherence to the values of hard work and reliability no longer functions as a business model. Dogged, stalwart, and simple in his beliefs, Iggy is a low-key kind of guy — the sort that can leave his wife without her noticing — and thus it comes as little surprise that he is unable to ignite a sense of history and purpose in his disinterested extended family and the decision to sell the restaurant is made — demolition and redevelopment of the site its inevitable fate. In the three days prior to the closure of the sale, Iggy has time to reflect on the arc of the restaurant’s story, to deliver, in effect, an eulogy for Angela’s, and the energy, work, and beliefs that made it possible — a sombre Puck, as the curtains close on this particular American dream.
As noted earlier, the hallmark strengths of Kowalski’s writing are all present in this work — gentle, warm, compassionate, and humorous appreciation of the ordinary life, the celebration of a good story simply told and of the courage and dignity at work in what might otherwise be considered unremarkable lives. This is, once again, apparent in his rendition of Iggy — a character reminiscent of Jeremy Merkin in The Hundred Hearts — a seemingly hapless schmuck, doggedly courting disdain in a world of endless self-promotion, and illusory reinvention, who quietly delivers a master class in integrity and dignity. From one perspective, Iggy’s last day at work at the restaurant could not be more pathetic. He stubbornly insists on prepping the evening’s offering, and remaining at his post as host, maintaining rigid standards of hospitality, even though it is reasonably certain no guests will arrive. When, to his initial delight, a group of well-dressed business types do appear, it is not to eat but to inspect their new acquisition, and Iggy comes to understand that the buyer of the restaurant is, in fact, his wife’s lover. His humiliation, it seems, is complete. However, Iggy, rather magnificently, turns the tables on his disdainful guests. Ignatz Podbielski may be going down, but he provides, in the process, a virtuosic demonstration of the art of losing well. and, in the end, it is not he who is left with vague intuitions of an inadequate belief system and intimations of Mordor.
The characterization of Aniela, the Podbielski matriarch, and flag bearer for the immigrant dream of America, is somewhat less successful, and illustrates, perhaps, some of the dangers inherent in any attempt to fictionalize a revered family legend — the trademark Kowalksi “honeyed glow” teeters on the brink of sentimentality, and although hints of a deeper self do occasionally shine through, overall, the depiction of Aniela suffers from an excess of reverence. One can make the argument that this is fitting, representing, as she does, the triumph of the immigrant dream, an icon from an age when this dream was still pure and attainable, a sort of personal family Statue of Liberty. An icon’s strength, of course, comes from its surface beauty, and the faith and ideals it represents, and it is perhaps, simply rude, and somewhat misses the point, to scratch the surface to peer at the plaster beneath. That being said, as a reader, one wishes to have known Aniela more deeply.
Beyond the obvious examination of the beginning and end of one immigrant family’s American dream, the homage to the possibilities America once offered, and the spirit, energy, and determination that were required to realize those possibilities, it is the overall atmosphere of the story which suggests the comparison to a funeral. An air of elegy, of quiet resignation and relinquishment, centred in the character of Iggy, pervades these pages — the sort of respectful sadness one feels in the presence of a once great but now fading hero. Respect, of course, is due, and must be paid, but, like an idea whose time is up, like a story which has run its course, like Angela’s restaurant, the American dream, as it once was, Kowalski seems to be saying, is dead. For the time being, the villains (or clowns, or, perhaps, villainous clowns) may have control of the plot, the energy, purpose, and possibility drained from the dream and its inhabitants, and pandemonium (in the original sense of the word) reigns. For the time being? In a mischievous nod to the infinite potential of life and the power of the human spirit, Kowalski inserts an element of regeneration into this death notice — breaking the sourdough mother out of the closet in which it had been imprisoned throughout the period of the restaurant’s decline (tended only by the aging cook) and bearing it into the future in Iggy’s arms. One suspects there may be something righteous yet bubbling in that cauldron.