A review of Lucia Berlin’s short story collection Evening in Paradise

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Evening in Paradise is the second posthumously-published collection of short stories by the American writer Lucia Berlin. The book collects twenty-two stories originally published between 1981 and 1999. Most of the stories center around a semi-autobiographical version of Berlin herself. Like the excellent compendium A Manual for Cleaning Women which preceded it, Evening in Paradise is crammed with life. These stories teem with electric energy—even when their immediate subject matters might seem banal on the surface. Evening in Paradise shows an artist shaping the events of her life, big and small, wild and tragic, sharp and dull, into an impressionistic and urgent patchwork of tales that add up to a fictional memoir of sorts. As Berlin’s eldest son Mark Berlin noted in a 2005 essay on his mother (which serves as an introduction to Evening in Paradise),

Ma wrote true stories; not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes. Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.

The first stories in the collection feel sharply autobiographical. Both “The Musical Vanity Boxes” and “Sometimes in the Summer” are told by a first-person narrator named “Lucia” who details the small adventures of her childhood early 1940s in El Paso, Texas. Lucia and her friend slip over borders of all sorts, passing not only into Juarez, but also into a more complicated version of themselves as they mature. There’s a subtle menace rumbling under these stories. A mature Berlin looks back, knows what her girl protagonist does not yet know about the world and its dark joys and sinister terrors. The writer shows us a narrator gazing on life’s bright lights, even as she—the writer—draws our attention to the edge of those lights, to the threatening shadows on the margin.

Like A Manual for Cleaning Women, the stories in Evening in Paradise follow an arc of maturation—they are organized not chronologically by dates of composition or publication, but organized rather around the age of the central protagonist, the Berlin stand-in.

We find this protagonist simultaneously struggling and thriving in her teenage years. “Anando: A Gothic Romance” lives up to its subtitle. Set in Chile in an ex-pat community, “Andado” features a version of Berlin’s own teenage family—the father, a somewhat-absent mining engineer; the mother a depressed alcoholic. It’s no wonder then that our hero “Laura” is so easily seduced — “ruined” — by an older man. In one telling aside, the third-person narrator assesses a subtle moment of the seduction from the distance of time:

She was simply enveloped.

This would never happen to her again. When she grew older she would always be in control, even when being submissive. This would be the first and the last time anyone took over herself.

In “Itinerary,” another fictionalized-version of Berlin departs Chile for college in New Mexico. She leaves on her own, taking a series of planes and being greeted by a series of hosts, each of which reveals, inadvertently, something about her family which she had not previously seen, something that would be obvious though to any mature eyes settling on the family with objective distance. Berlin’s first-person narrator never quite names what is revealed to her; instead, she takes us up to the moment where we see her seeing what she has previously been blind to, yet still does not quite have the language to name. The final lines of “Itinerary” are a sort of negative epiphany:

It was sunset as we circled Albuquerque. The Sandias and the miles of rocky desert were a deep coral pink. I felt old. Not grown up, but the way I do now. That there was so much I did not see or understand, and now it is too late. The air was cold in New Mexico. No one met me.

The middle section of Evening in Paradise gives way to a series of stories focusing on young wives and young mothers different iterations of Berlin in the fifties. “Lead Street, Albuquerque” is particularly fascinating. Here, Berlin splits the material of her life into two different characters—the narrator, a somewhat hapless housewife who’s relegated to washing the dishes while her artist-husband and his artist-friends chat about hepcat stuff—and “Maria” — “seventeen, American, but grew up in South America, acts foreign, shy. English major.” A mature narrator looks back, half-mockingly and half-lovingly, at an ingénue-muse version of herself, the pair framed in the same tale. And our narrator turns toward her own life in the same attitude in turn:

Is there a word opposite of déjà vu? Or a word to describe how I saw my whole future flash before my eyes? I saw that I’d stay at the Albuquerque National Bank and Bernie would get his doctorate and keep on painting bad paintings and making muddy pottery and would get tenure. We would have two daughters and one would a dentist and the other a cocaine addict. Well, of course I didn’t know all that, but I saw how things would be hard. And I knew that years and years from then Bernie would probably leave me for one of his students and I’d be devastated but then would go back to school and when I was fifty I’d finally do things I wanted to do, but I would be tired.

The push-pull of artistic ambition against domestic life’s constraints ripple through these middle stories, where women raise kids and clean houses while men pursue their muses—writing, jazz, painting. There are small resentments and sordid affairs, banal routines and burgeoning substance abuse problems. Threaded through these stories is a common theme though, summed up in the last line of “Cherry Blossom Time,” when the hero Cassandra addresses her husband: “David. Please talk to me.”

The collection’s title story marks a shift in the trajectory of the Berlinverse, and stands out as a bit of an oddity. “Evening in Paradise” is the only piece here that doesn’t feature a straightforward Berlin stand-in; indeed, the story doesn’t have a strong central persona at all. Rather, “Evening” plays like a series of elegiac vignettes centered around the Oceano hotel–notably its bar—in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It’s 1963 and cast and crew of The Night of the Iguana are causing a ruckus in the small fishing town, drinking heavily, taking up with beach gigolos, smoking reefers—and even shooting heroin and snorting coke. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor burst in and out; Ava Gardner looms larger than life. Director John Huston sits in the bar’s corner, drinking homemade mescal from a mayonnaise jar. There’s scheming and screaming, and generally famous times—but, like the title declares, the scene announces the end of an era.

“Evening in Paradise,” without a Berlin-protagonist, resets the stage, moving us to Mexico for a while, and introducing heroin as a major trope. In the next tale, “La Barca de la Ilusion,” Maya and her husband Buzz move to Yelapa (in Jalisco, Mexico) so that Buzz can kick heroin. “La Barca” is a standout in the collection, a slow burn of a tale, but one packed with lifetimes of storytelling. Buzz, born to a wealthy Boston family, drops out of Harvard to play saxophone in jazz clubs. He marries an heiress named Circe (I know, right?), starts a Volkswagen franchise, becomes a millionaire, has an affair with Maya, divorces Circe, etc. The problem remains though: “Heroin is easy to hide if you are rich, because you always have it.” That problem transgresses the paradise of Yalapa in the form of Victor, a menacing drug dealer who’s had his hooks in Buzz for years. Victor is a creature from the shadows, the sinister specter that haunted the background of the earlier tales of Evening in Paradise finally made manifest. I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but it swells to a startling, cinematic climax.

Characters like Victor and Buzz and Circe show up in different iterations in successive stories, like “My Life Is an Open Book” and “The Wives,” before Evening in Paradise gives over to Berlin’s Oakland years. Stories like “Noël, 1974” feature Berlin’s sons—excuse me, Berlin’s stand-in’s sons. These stories also feature her alter-ego’s high-functioning alcoholism. (Again, features that will be familiar to fans of the stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women).

The one-pager “The Pony Bar, Oakland” serves as something of a summary of the material that preceded it, delivered in Berlin’s economical prose. “There are certain perfect particular sounds. A tennis ball, a golf ball hit just right….Pool is erotic any way you look at it” the narrator begins, perched on a bar stool, as the sounds of billiards take her back in time to a cricket match in Chile:

Cricket in Santiago. Red parasols, green grass, white Andes. Red and white striped canvas chairs at the Prince of Wales Country Club. I signed chits for lemonade, tipped the tuxedoed waiters, applauded John Wells. Perfect crack of the cricket bat. I wore white, was careful of the grass stains, flirted with the boys who wore Grange school gray flannels, blue blazers in summertime. Cucumber sandwiches with tea, plans for Sunday at Viña del Mar.

The narrator remarks that she felt like an alien in that privileged childhood, just as she feels like an alien here at the Pony Bar in Oakland, sitting next to a tattooed biker. Berlin—or hey, sorry, Berlin’s stand-in—is never at home, but also at home every where. The tale ends as she glances at the hinges tattooed on the biker’s wrists, elbows, knees. The story ends in a wry punchline:

“You need a hinge on your neck,” I said.

“You need a screw up your ass.”

The smoky bar reverberating with the erotic sounds of pool transmutes into expatriate pastimes and then lands back into unglamorous Oakland, to culminate in a dirty joke. “Pony Bar, Oakland” condenses Evening in Paradise’s themes of memory, sensation, and life into a spare but evocative tale.

Later stories, like “Our Brother’s Keeper,” “Lost in the Louvre,” and “Luna Nueva” work in much the same way, filling a few slim pages with full fat life. These late stories are reflective and fully mature—still questioning and questing, but also shining with a strange peace, a strange reconciling to the sinister forces that vibrate under life’s vivid contours of family, work, culture, persona. I’ll confess that there’s something in these stories that I don’t fully appreciate—something beyond my forty years, something that their narrators see that I don’t maybe—maybe not yet, maybe not ever. But I’ll be happy to revisit them—and Berlin’s work in general—in years to come. Highly recommended.

 

Is there a word opposite of déjà vu? (Lucia Berlin)

No one else was outside, and I was too depressed to call anybody to come see the unbelievable sunset. Is there a word opposite of déjà vu? Or a word to describe how I saw my whole future flash before my eyes? I saw that I’d stay at the Albuquerque National Bank and Bernie would get his doctorate and keep on painting bad paintings and making muddy pottery and would get tenure. We would have two daughters and one would a dentist and the other a cocaine addict. Well, of course I didn’t know all that, but I saw how things would be hard. And I knew that years and years from then Bernie would probably leave me for one of his students and I’d be devastated but then would go back to school and when I was fifty I’d finally do things I wanted to do, but I would be tired.

From Lucia Berlin’s short story “Lead Street, Albuquerque.” Collected in Evening in Paradise.

Blog about some recent reading

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I finished Angela Carter’s surreal fantasia The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman a week or so ago, in a bit of a fever at its depraved horniness. Hoffman sprints along with an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire energy. The story is essentially a picaresque adventure—our narrator Desiderio sets out on a mission to assassinate Dr. Hoffman, a not-really-mad scientist who’s waging war on reality. Desiderio falls in love with Hoffman’s daughter Albertina though, complicating matters. All kinds of wild shit happens in each episode of the book—indeed, each chapter feels like it could stand on its own as a short story. I loved it, and it deserves a proper review, but for now I’ll lazily compare it to a bunch of other books I loved: Voltaire’s Candide, Réage’s Story of O, Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore, Kafka’s The Castle, Acker’s Don Quixote, any of Robert Coover’s fables, Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Oh, and video games. Someone could make a fantastic video game out of The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman.

I read the first half of João Gilberto Noll’s novel Lord (new in English translation by Edgar Garbeletto) on Sunday. The book is seriously weird. The narrator is “a Brazilian who wrote books that were mostly well received by critics but not the public.” The Brazilian novelist (a strange cipher of Noll himself) arrives in London in the winter on a “mission.” What that mission is is completely unclear, but it seems to involve an English university. Like the other Noll books I’ve read, Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel,  Lord moves on its own dream logic. The narrator seems unstuck in both time and space. He’s an abject voice trying to reinvent himself from the outside in—but his disintegration seems fatally imminent.

I’ve also started in on the latest Lucia Berlin collection, Evening in Paradise, reading the first three stories. The first two, “The Musical Vanity Boxes” (which I’d read before in Homesick) and “Sometimes in Summer” are memoir pieces set in Berlin’s childhood home of El Paso (or, more properly I suppose, El Paso–Juárez). There’s a frankness to these tales that’s remarkable, an artistry of storytelling that never announces itself as such. The stories read like vivid recollections, and center on a very young Lucia and her best friend Hope, a Syrian immigrant. There’s an underlying menace here, too, a sense that these two friends might fall into disaster at any given moment. (In this way, these stories recalled the young female friends at the center of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend who slowly come into consciousness of the real world around them). The third story in the collection “Andado: A Gothic Romance” is written in the third-person, although its hero “Laura” is clearly a stand-in for a teenage Lucia. Laura, like Lucia was, is an ex-pat teenager living in Chile. “Andado” too offers a slow swelling malice, as we perceive the dangers that Laura cannot. The story culminates in an impressionistic dreamlike sequence that matches Laura’s shaken psyche. I’m trying to restrain myself from reading all of these stories too fast.

I’ve poked about in Leslie Fiedler’s collection No! In Thunder, reading first his essay on Walt Whitman, and then his essay on Faulkner (it trapped me with its title: “William Faulkner, Highbrows’ Lowbrow”).

Finally, I’ve been reading Letters, Dreams & Other Writings by Remedios Varo (translated by Margaret Carson) in bits and pieces. I really dig the book and am happy Carson translated it and Wakefield Press published it. There’s a neat section where Varo describes her paintings—like this, for example:

Phenomenon of Weightlessness, 1963

The Earth escapes from its axis and its center of gravity to the great surprise of the astronomer, who tries to keep his balance with his left foot standing in one dimension and his right foot standing in another.

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Read “Lost in the Louvre,” a short story by Lucia Berlin

“Lost in the Louvre” is a short story from Lucia Berlin’s collection of previously-uncompiled stories, Evening in Paradise. You can read the entire story at FS&G’s Work in Progress site.

Here are the first four paragraphs:

9780374279486As a child I would try to capture the exact moment that I passed from awake to asleep. I lay very still and waited, but the next thing I knew, it was morning. I did this off and on as I grew older. Sometimes I ask people if they have ever tried this, but they never understand what I mean. I was over forty when it first happened, and I wasn’t even trying. A hot summer night. Arcs from car headlights swept across the ceiling. The whirr of a neighbor’s sprinklers. I caught sleep. Just as it came quiet as a cool sheet to cover me, a light caress on my eyelids. I felt sleep as it took me. In the morning I woke up happy and I never needed to try it again.

It certainly had never occurred to me to catch death, although it was in Paris that I did. That I saw how it comes upon you.

I’m sure this sounds melodramatic. I was very happy in Paris, but sad too. My lover and my father had died the year before. My mother had quite recently died. I thought about them as I walked the streets or sat in cafés. Especially Bruno, talking to him in my head, laughing with him. My childhood friends, girls lying around on the grass, on the beach, talking about going to Paris someday. They were dead too. So was Andres, who had given me Remembrance of Things Past.

The first few weeks I explored every tourist destination in the city. L’Orangerie, the lovely Sainte Chapelle on a sunny day. Balzac’s house, Hugo’s museum. I sat upstairs at the Deux Magots, where everyone looked like a Californian or Camus. I went to Baudelaire’s grave in Montmartre and thought it was funny for feminist Simone de Beauvoir to be buried with Sartre. I even went to a museum for medical instruments and a stamp museum. I loitered on the rue de Courcelles and walked the Champs Elysées. Napoleon’s tomb, the Sunday bird market. La Serpente. Some days I took random combinations of Metros and walked and walked in each new quarter. I sat in the square beneath Colette’s apartment and walked in the Luxembourg Gardens with everybody from Flaubert to Gertrude Stein. I went to Boulevard Haussmann and to the Bois de Boulogne with Albertine. Everything I saw seemed vividly déjà vu, but I was seeing what I had read.

Read the rest of “Lost in the Louvre.”

Three Books (or, My three favorite reading experiences in 2016)

After years of false starts, I finally read Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard this August. Then I read it again, immediately. (It’s one of only two novels I can recall rereading right away—the other two were Blood Meridian and Gravity’s Rainbow). The Leopard tells the story of Prince Fabrizio of Sicily, who witnesses the end of his era during the Risorgimento, the Italian reunification. Fabrizio is an enchanting character, by turns fiery and lascivious, intellectual and stoic, and The Leopard takes us through his mind and through his times. He’s thoroughly complex, unknown even to himself, perhaps. The novel is impossibly rich, sad, electric, a meditation on death, sex, sensuality—pleasure and loss. More mood than plot, The Leopard glides on vibe, its action framed in rich set pieces: fancy balls and sumptuous dinners and games of pleasure in summer estates. But of course there is a plot—several strong plots, indeed (marriage plots and death plots, religious plots and political plots). Yet the narrative’s viewpoint characters keep the plots at bay, or mediate them, rather than propel them forward. Simply one of the better novels I’ve read in years, its final devastating images inked into my memory for as long as I have memory. (English translation by Archibald Colquhoun, by the way).

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The 43 stories that comprise Lucia Berlin’s excellent collection A Manual for Cleaning Women braid together to reveal a rich, dirty, sad, joyous world—a world of emergency rooms and laundromats, fancy hotels and detox centers, jails and Catholic schools. Berlin’s stories jaunt through space and time: rough mining towns in Idaho; country clubs and cotillions in Santiago, Chile; heartbreak in New Mexico and New York; weirdness in Oakland and Berkeley; weirdness in Juarez and El Paso. (Full Biblioklept review).

Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll’s 1991 novella Quiet Creature on the Corner (English translation by Adam Morris; Two Lines Press) is probably best read without any kind of foregrounding or forewarning. The book is a nightmarish, abject, kinetic, surreal, picaresque read, a mysterious prose-poem that resists allegorical interpretation.  Quiet Creature on the Corner is like a puzzle, but a puzzle without a reference picture, a puzzle with pieces missing. The publishers have compared the novella to the films of David Lynch, and the connection is not inaccurate. Too, Quiet Creature evokes other sinister Lynchian puzzlers, like Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (or Nazi Literature in the Americas, which it is perhaps a twin text to). It’s easy to compare much of postmodern literature to Kafka, but Quiet Creature is truly Kafkaesque. It also recalled to me another Kafkaesque novel, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark—both are soaked in a dark dream logic. Other reference points abound—the paintings of Francis Bacon, Leon Golub, Hieronymus Bosch, Goya’s etchings, etc. But Noll’s narrative is its own thing, wholly. (Full Biblioklept review).

A review of Lucia Berlin’s excellent short story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women

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The 43 stories that comprise Lucia Berlin’s excellent collection A Manual for Cleaning Women braid together to reveal a rich, dirty, sad, joyous world—a world of emergency rooms and laundromats, fancy hotels and detox centers, jails and Catholic schools. Berlin’s stories jaunt through space and time: rough mining towns in Idaho; country clubs and cotillions in Santiago, Chile; heartbreak in New Mexico and New York; weirdness in Oakland and Berkeley; weirdness in Juarez and El Paso.

The center of this world—I’ll call it the Berlinverse, okay?—the center of the Berlinverse is Lucia Berlin herself. “Her life was rich and full of incident, and the material she took from it for her stories was colorful, dramatic and wide-ranging,” writes Lydia Davis in her foreword to Manual. (You can read Davis’s foreword at The New Yorker; it’s a far more convincing case for Berlin than I can manage here). Yes, Berlin’s life was crammed with incident—-so perhaps the strangest moment in A Manual for Cleaning Women is the three-page biography that appends the volume. The bio is strange in how un-strange it is, how it neatly lays out in a few paragraphs the information of Berlin’s life, information we already know as real, as true, from reading the preceding stories. She’s large, she contains multitudes.

Truth is a central theme in these stories. In “Here It Is Saturday,” a version of Berlin teaches fiction writing to prison inmates. She tells them, “you can lie and still tell the truth.” (As I describe the scenario for “Here It Is Saturday” I realize how hokey it sounds—I suppose there are lots of potentially-hokey moments in Berlin’s stories, yet her cruelty and humor deflate them).

In a crucial moment in the late short story “Silence,” the narrator tells us,

I exaggerate a lot and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don’t actually ever lie.

The narrator of “Silence” is, of course, a version of Berlin—fictionalized, sure, a persona, yep, an exaggeration, maybe—but she’s utterly believable.

“Silence” is one of many stories that repeat aspects of Berlin’s biography—we get little Lu’s childhood, a father away at the big war, a drunkenly absent mother, a bad drunk grandfather. A Syrian friend betrayed. Nuns. A good drunk uncle. A hit and run. Am I rushing through it? Sorry. To read Berlin is to read this material again and again, in different ways, through different perspectives and filters. “Silence” is particularly interesting to me because it combines material from two earlier stories not collected in Manual: “Stars and Saints” and “The Musical Vanity Boxes,” both published in Black Sparrow Press’s 1990 collection Homesick. These earlier stories are sharper, rawer, and dirtier; the later story—and Berlin’s later stories in general—strike me as more refined. Wiser, perhaps, sussing grace from abject memory.

Berlin’s recollections of the different figures in her life drive these stories, and it’s fascinating to see how key memories erupt into different tales. Berlin’s narrator’s alcoholic grandfather, a famous Texan dentist, sometimes emerges as a sympathetic if grotesque comedic figure, only to appear elsewhere as an abusive monster. Cousin Bella Lynn is a comedic foil in “Sex Appeal,” but an important confidante in “Tiger Bites” (a story of a visit to an abortion provider in Juarez). Several stories center on sister Sally, dying of cancer.

Berlin’s narrator’s four sons (Berlin had four sons) are often in the margins of the stories, but when she mines material from them the results are painful and superb. I note “her sons” in the previous line, but what I really want to note is the friend of one of her sons, a boy she calls Jesse. He shows up in the short “Teenage Punk,” where he’s our narrator’s date to go look at some cranes in a ditch at sunrise. That’s pure Lucia Berlin—weird abject unnatural natural beauty.:

We crossed the log above the slow dark irrigation ditch, over to the clear ditch where we lay on our stomachs, silent as guerrillas. I know, I romanticize everything. It is true though that we lay there freezing for a long time in the fog. It wasn’t fog. Must have been mist from the ditch or maybe just the steam from our mouths.

That brief paragraph showcases much of her technique: Inflation-deflation-resolution-hesitation. The high, low, the in-between. Jesse shows up again in one of the volume’s lengthier (and more painful) tales, “Let Me See You Smile,” a story of police brutality, scandal, and alcoholism.

Most of the stories in Manual are in some way about alcoholism, with the ur-narrator’s mother’s alcoholism haunting the book. In the near-elegy “Panteón de Dolores,” the narrator finds her mother drunk and weeping. When she tries to comfort her mother, she’s rejected; the mother wails, “…the only romance in my life is a midget lamp salesman!” The narrator-daughter reflects, “this sounds funny now, but it wasn’t then when she was sobbing, sobbing, as if her heart would break.” Berlin often punctures her punchlines. In “Mama,” Berlin consoles her dying sister Sally by weaving a fictional ditty about their mother, a paragraph that ends, “She has never before known such happiness.” The story assuages some of her sister’s grief by transmuting it into a realization of love, but the narrator? — “Me…I have no mercy.”

And yet a search for some kind of mercy, some kind of grace propels so many of the stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women. The three-pager “Step,” set in a half-way house, details the residents watching a boxing match between Wilfred Benitez and Sugar Ray Leonard. The recovering (and not-so-recovering) drunks “weren’t asking Benitez to win, just to stay in the fight.” He stays in to the last round before touching his right knee to the canvas. Berlin’s stand-in whispers, “God, please help me.” In “Unmanageable,” the alcoholic narrator finds some measure of grace from others. First from the NyQuil-swilling drunks who share saltine crackers with her in a kind of communion as they wait, shaking, for the liquor store to open at six a.m. And then, from her children. Her oldest son hides her car keys from her.

The same sons are on the narrator’s mind at the end of “Her First Detox,” in which Berlin’s stand-in’s plan for the future takes the form of a shopping list. She’ll cook for her boys when she gets home:

Flour. Milk. Ajax. She only had wine vinegar at home, which, with Antabuse, could throw her into convulsions. She wrote cider vinegar on the list.

Berlin’s various viewpoint characters don’t always do the best job of taking care of themselves, but taking care of other people is nevertheless a preoccupation with the tales in Manual. “Lu” takes care of her dying father in “Phantom Pain”; there’s sick sister Sally; the four sons, of course; a heroin-addicted husband; assorted strays, sure; an old couple in failing health in “Friends”; and the disparate patients who wander in and out of these tales, into doctor’s offices, into emergency rooms, into detox clinics.

And the cleaning women. Caretakers too, of a sort. Laundromats and washing machines are motifs throughout A Manual for Cleaning Women, and it’s no surprise that “Ajax” made the shopping list from “Her First Detox” that I quoted above. An easy point of comparison for Berlin’s writing is the so-called “dirty realism” of Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, and Carson McCullers. But if Berlin’s realism is dirty, what are we to make of her concern with cleaning, with detox?

As a way of (non-)answering this question, here’s the entirety of the shortest tale in A Manual for Cleaning Women, “Macadam”:

When fresh it looks like caviar, sounds like broken glass, like someone chewing ice.

I’d chew ice when the lemonade was finished, swaying with my grandmother on the porch swing. We gazed down upon the chain gang paving Upson Street. A foreman poured the macadam; the convicts stomped it down with a heavy rhythmic beat. The chains rang; the macadam made the sound of applause.

The three of us said the word often. My mother because she hated where we lived, in squalor, and at least now we would have a macadam street. My grandmother just so wanted things clean — it would hold down the dust. Red Texan dust that blew in with gray tailings from the smelter, sifting into dunes on the polished hall floor, onto her mahogany table.

I used to say macadam out loud, to myself, because it sounded like the name for a friend.

There’s so much in those four paragraphs. Berlin collapses geography and genealogy into ten sentences: daughter, mother, grandmother. Texas, “squalor,” convicts. A road—a new road. Berlin’s narrator converts crushed stone into caviar, then the ice left over after sweet lemonade—and then into the magic of a friend. There’s a lot of beauty in dirt.

I could go on and on about A Manual for Cleaning Women—about how its loose, sharp tales are far more precise than their jagged edges suggest, about its warmth, its depth, its shocking humor, its sadness, its insight. But all I really mean to say is: It’s great, it’s real, it’s true—read it.

A Manual for Cleaning Women is new in trade paperback from Picador. You can read the first story in the collection, “Angel’s Laundromat,” at Picador’s website.

 

 

“The Pony Bar, Oakland” — Lucia Berlin

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“Macadam” — Lucia Berlin

“Macadam” by Lucia Berlin

from A Manual for Cleaning Women


 

When fresh it looks like caviar, sounds like broken glass, like someone chewing ice.

I’d chew ice when the lemonade was finished, swaying with my grandmother on the porch swing. We gazed down upon the chain gang paving Upson Street. A foreman poured the macadam; the convicts stomped it down with a heavy rhythmic beat. The chains rang; the macadam made the sound of applause.

The three of us said the word often. My mother because she hated where we lived, in squalor, and at least now we would have a macadam street. My grandmother just so wanted things clean — it would hold down the dust. Red Texan dust that blew in with gray tailings from the smelter, sifting into dunes on the polished hall floor, onto her mahogany table.

I used to say macadam out loud, to myself, because it sounded like the name for a friend.

As a rule, never work for friends (Lucia Berlin)

Linda’s today.

(Cleaning women: As a rule, never work for friends. Sooner or later they resent you because you know so much about them. Or else you’ll no longer like them, because you do.)

But Linda and Bob are good, old friends. I feel their warmth even though they aren’t there. Come and blueberry jelly on the sheets. Racing forms and cigarette butts in the bathroom. Notes from Bob to Linda: “Buy some smokes and take the car . . . dooh-dah doo-dah.” Drawings by Andrea with Love to Mom. Pizza crusts. I clean their coke mirror with Windex.

It is the only place I work that isn’t spotless to begin with. It’s filthy in fact. Every Wednesday I climb the stairs like Sisyphus into their living room where it always looks like they are in the middle of moving.

I don’t make much money with them because I don’t charge by the hour, no carfare. No lunch for sure. I really work hard. But I sit around a lot, stay very late. I smoke and read The New York Times, porno books, How to Build a Patio Roof. Mostly I just look out the window at the house next door, where we used to live. 2129 1/2 Russell Street. I look at the tree that grows wooden pears Ter used to shoot at. The wooden fence glistens with BBs. The BEKINS sign that lit our bed at night. I miss Ter and I smoke. You can’t hear the trains during the day.

From Lucia Berlin’s short story “A Manual for Cleaning Women.” Collected in A Manual for Cleaning Women.

I just finished Stendhal’s novel The Charterhouse of Parma, which is mostly about the problems of aristocrats. Digging into Berlin’s lovely dirty stories feels like an antidote. Balzac said that Stendhal’s novel contained a book on every page; each paragraph in Berlin is like its own little film: “Come and blueberry jelly on the sheets. Racing forms and cigarette butts in the bathroom…Drawings by Andrea with Love to Mom. Pizza crusts. I clean their coke mirror with Windex.” Good lord. img_3120

Books acquired, 7.13.2016

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Four review copies in yesterday’s mail (solicited and unsolicited). I get behind on these books acquired posts, so I’ll lump the books in all at once and quickly.

First and foremost: Lucia Berlin’s collection A Manual for Cleaning Women is new in trade paperback from Picador. The book got a ton of buzz last year when it came out in hardback last year, and I didn’t read it then, but I did read the Black Sparrow-published collection HomesickMany of the stories in Manual were first published in Homesick. They are very good stories—funny and gritty and elegant and sad and real. Full review forthcoming; in the meantime here’s Lydia Davis, who wrote the intro to Manual:

I have always had faith that the best writers will rise to the top, like cream, sooner or later, and will become exactly as well-known as they should be-their work talked about, quoted, taught, performed, filmed, set to music, anthologized. Perhaps, with the present collection, Lucia Berlin will begin to gain the attention she deserves.

Continue reading “Books acquired, 7.13.2016”

“Rainy Day” — Lucia Berlin

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Good or bad codes/good or bad deaths (Lucia Berlin)

While the staff members think in terms of good or bad codes – how well everyone did what they were supposed to do, whether the patient responded or not – I think in terms of good or bad deaths.

Bad deaths are ones with the manager of a hotel as next of kin, or the cleaning woman who found the stroke victim two weeks later, dying of dehydration. Really bad deaths are when there are several children and in-laws I have called in from somewhere inconvenient and none of them seem to know each other or the dying parent at all. There is nothing to say. They keep talking about arrangements, about having to make arrangements, about who will make arrangements.

Gypsies are good deaths. I think so. . .  the nurses don’t and security guards don’t. There are always dozens of them demanding to be with the dying person, to kiss them and hug them, unplugging and screwing up the TVs and monitors and assorted apparatus. The best thing about gypsy deaths is they never make their kids keep quiet. The adults wail and cry and sob but all the children continue to run around, playing and laughing, without being told they should be sad or respectful.

Good deaths seem to be coincidentally good Codes – the patient responds miraculously to all the life-giving treatment and then just quietly passes away.

From Lucia Berlin’s short story “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977.”

Lucia Berlin’s “Friends”

Loretta met Anna and Sam the day she saved Sam’s life.

Anna and Sam were old. She was 80 and he was 89. Loretta would see Anna from time to time when she went to swim at her neighbor Elaine’s pool. One day she stopped by as the two women were convincing the old guy to take a swim. He finally got in, was dog-paddling along with a big grin on his face when he had a seizure. The other two women were in the shallow end and didn’t notice. Loretta jumped in, shoes and all, pulled him to the steps and up out of the pool. He didn’t need resuscitation but he was disoriented and frightened. He had some medicine to take, for epilepsy, and they helped him dry off and dress. They all sat around for a while until they were sure he was fine and could walk to their house, just down the block. Anna and Sam kept thanking Loretta for saving his life, and insisted that she go to lunch at their house the next day.

It happened that she wasn’t working for the next few days. She had taken three days off without pay because she had a lot of things that needed doing. Lunch with them would mean going all the way back to Berkeley from the city, and not finishing everything in one day, as she had planned.

Read the rest of Lucia Berlin’s story “Friends” at VICE.

Three Books

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Homesick: New & Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin. Lovely Black Sparrow trade edition, 1990; design by Barbara Martin. An amazing book, a revelation to me. I picked it up looking for the posthumous collection A Manual for Cleaning Women (that track is collected here) based on, well, the hype. But the hype was more than right, and I feel simultaneously abashed that I didn’t know Berlin before and grateful to know her writing now.

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Three Hainish Novels by Ursula K. Le Guin. An omnibus collecting Rocannon’s WorldPlanet of Exile, and City of Illusions. 1967 hardcover by Nelson Doubleday. Jacket design by John Lisco; cover illustration by Jack Woolhiser. I finished City of Illusions this weekend—probably the most accomplished of her earliest (non-)trilogy, synthesizing high adventure into a philosophical exploration of truth and lie. A reread of The Left Hand of Darkness is next.img_1187

Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas. 1988 trade paperback by ARK. No designer or cover artist credited. I dug this out at some point in my big Le Guin read/re-read, and it’s been hanging around since. Can’t remember why.

Lucia Berlin/Ursula K. Le Guin (Books acquired, 12.11.2015)

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Went to the bookstore this afternoon to pick up the much-acclaimed collection of stories by Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women (typing out the title, I suddenly hear its ambiguities). My trusty local used bookshop didn’t have a copy, but they did have Homesick, and I love Black Sparrow editions, so hey, cool.

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I’ve been tearing through Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels lately after picking up Rocannon’s World at sorta-random. I’m in the middle of City of Illusion right now, having finished (a third read of) The Dispossessed (fantastic), The Word for World Is Forest (a bit too on-the-nose critique of the Vietnam War; also, James Cameron should send Le Guin some Avatar bucks), and Planet of Exile, which was great. (And oh: George R.R. Martin should send Le Guin some Game of Thrones bucks for that one: Planet of Exile has barbarian invaders from the north, seasons that last for decades, a constant fear that “winter is coming,” and its own white walkers (snow ghouls)).

So well and anyway: I already have a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness, which is the next title in the sequence in which I’m reading the Hainish books. My pilfered copy isfrom years back, and I’ve read it a few times—but I just couldn’t pass up this first edition copy with its lovely Klimtesque cover art by Leo and Diane Dillon.