This book is a sort of archaeological dig that turns up not pottery shards or chariot wheels but Limburger and onion sandwiches, a 1925 Buick, Wendt’s Quality Chekd Ice Cream, Vic Damone singing ”I Have But One Heart” on a jukebox, Dr. Swett’s Early American Root Beer (”Rich in Dextrose”), birch beer, Simon Pure Beer (”To be sure, drink Simon Pure”), cuspidors, and pickled lamb tongues (two for 15 cents). The culture that Verlyn Klinkenborg is excavating here, layer by layer, is that of a working-class Polish neighborhood on the east side of Buffalo, which flourished during the first half of the century and has now vanished as thoroughly as Nineveh and Tyre.
The treasure hoard, the King Tut’s tomb, of The Last Fine Time (parts of which appeared in The New Yorker) is a neighborhood bar founded in 1922 by Thomas Wenzek, a Polish immigrant, and transformed in 1947 by his son Eddie into a swank place with a neon sign. The bar could be in any of the cities that ring the Great Lakes, and so could the bleak frame houses that surround it and the blizzard that blows in off the lake at the beginning of the book, turning the city into a hushed, slumbering wilderness.
What brought Klinkenborg to this particular bar? He doesn’t say, but the author’s note says that he is married to Eddie Wenzek’s daughter. And what, if you are not an archaeologist specializing in bars, might bring you to this particular book? A meticulously evocative, gently ironic prose style, for one thing, and a large slice of American social history for another.
The book is also about the difference between the ominous narrow valleys of Poland’s Galicia region circa 1910 and the expansive horizons of America as seen through the eyes of a tough young peasant immigrant; the lustrous 19th-century ambitions of the city of Buffalo and the soot that had settled on such dreams by the 1930s; the steadfast customs and pungent foods of Old World immigrant communities and their displacement after World War II by an epoch both blander and more anxious — an age of advertising and A-bombs, of antiseptic suburbs and corroded cities.
Occasionally Klinkenborg’s prose is a little too arch and his museum collections of cultural and commercial debris all too thorough, but on the whole this is a modestly engaging, vivid, and funny book that not only re-creates a place you’ve never seen but makes you miss it, too.