This review appears in North Dakota Quarterly 83.1 (Winter 2016)
Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women. Ed. Stephen Emerson; Foreword by Lydia Davis. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015. Pp. 432, $26 hd.
The stories of Lucia Berlin (how’s that for a Cold War mother’s name?) are utterly raw in their emotion, smarting like scuffed knuckles or strings of firecrackers, each new one snapping with pain in the echo of the one preceding it. The tales are narrated by a seemingly straight, middle-aged mother of four (which L.B. was) who sinks into addiction, petty crime, and unexplainable flight from unseen tormentors in the American Sunbelt of the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Their miseries lie open like the viscera first apparent to the surgeon as he opens the wound along his marker. That bright, that perfectly horrific. These are worlds of pain from a narrator slipping into poverty alone in spite of what Phillip Dick called the “Perky-Pat Layouts” of the post-war economic boom, those natural communities of mid-twentieth-century abundance.
But even as they display true misery, their stylistic delivery is laconic, spare, diffuse. The lines along the page look not so much like locutions as much as mere revenants of sentences. Punctuation is unorthodox and sometimes inconsistent. If Celine were wandering across Tucson’s trailer parks instead of war-torn Germany, the layout of the pages would be very similar. As her executor Steve Emerson has written, Berlin avoids the comma that results from a pause that would not be heard in actual speech or that results in an undesired slowing of any kind. At the same time, the cadences can feel rushed and hectic. She has drawn comparisons with the first-person stories of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son, but the narrator bears the responsibility of her four children seriously, so the vision is not drug-addled or hallucinogenic.
But what amazing stories these are, and how deprived the modern short tale has been by her itinerant, hard-to-find appearances in journals edited by Saul Bellow or the Black Sparrow Press anthologies where they were eventually gathered in the nineties. She has an almost supernatural ability to tell a story from the perspective of the non-literary storytellers she grew up with, filtered through a smugless knowingness and affection for those she describes. Her stories have the illusion of a loose naturalness, but at the same time a solid beginning, middle, and end. They open and shut like a music box. Their music is dusty, deludedly hopeful, salving and bandaging the wound like a palimpsest letting the blue smudge of blood show through.
The sixties come more alive here than in anyone’s fiction or non-fiction, and that includes Carver, Didion, those who have etched out a branded grit and desperation for what their narrators deliver. There are lots of laundromats and lost TV game shows. In “Carpe Diem,” the mother telling the story puts us exactly where we need to be, looking through exactly the lens that does it justice:
So many laundromat attendants I have known, the hovering Charons, making change or who never have change. Now it is fat Ophelia who pronounces No Sweat as No Thwet. Her top plate broke on beef jerky. . . . When she comes down the aisle with a mop everybody moves and moves the baskets too. She is a channel hopper. Just when we’ve settled in to watch The Newlywed Game she’ll flick it to Ryan’s Hope.
The rightness, the click of completeness and the ending lift of the trash TV reference are seamless, the sacred stuffed screamingly down into the profane by someone who has come to know too much to be happy. An Elmore Leonard narrator would have no familiarity with Charon, and a Bellow or Martin Amis character wouldn’t even know what a laundromat was. This is the kind of incipient enlightenment someone like my own mother underwent when returning to college in the mid-sixties, raising three of us, my sisters and me wondering what she was doing with those SBX-bought Norton Critical Editions.
The sheer messiness of life brims over for narrators who had the glamorous, Jackiesque sheen of the author herself (look at the jacket photo!). She meets other mothers who have descended into parental abnegation and misanthropy, waiting for their issue to become tweens and run away:
The mother. She hated children. I met her once at an airport when all four of my kids were little. She yelled ‘Call them off,’ as if they were a pack of Dobermans.
It gets even better when the narrators are kids themselves:
All the clean restrooms were on the other side of the road, on the left side. But Mrs. Snowdon couldn’t make left turns. . . . It took us about ten blocks of right turns and one-way streets before we got to a restroom. . . . I’d already wet my pants by then but didn’t tell them, drank from the cool, cool Texaco faucet.
The stories I feel closest to are set in the Oakland-Berkeley flatlands of the seventies. I was an undergraduate and Berlin, somehow, kept gravitating back to that sun-blasted hodgepodge of students, welfare moms, immigrants, and would-be artists of every stripe. (Of course, she was a cocktail waitress somewhere along San Pablo Avenue.) She took up nursing (“It’s good, you can meet doctors that way. Dying rich men who are patients.”) “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977” packs a wallop and draws the Denis Johnson comparisons. This narrator knows every conceivable variety of overdose: phony, incompetent, sure-to-succeed:
Exam week at Cal. Many suicides, some succeeding, mostly Oriental. Dumbest suicide of the week was Otis. Otis’s wife, Lou-Bertha, left him for another man. Otis took two bottles of Sominex, but was wide awake. Peppy, even.
Who would call peripheral Asian characters “Orientals” but someone of that time and place? And not lost on us who watched TV the decade before—Otis was the town drunk in Mayberry RFD, who locked himself into a jail cell every night for safekeeping.
I have locked myself into this collection, turned the key, and fallen asleep with it every night since the book came out in early August. Scenes will drift into your dreams whether you recognize a reference or not:
It’s Marlene the Migraine, an ER habitue. She is so beautiful, young. She stops talking with two Laney College basketball players and stumbles to my desk to go into her act. Her howls are like Ornette Coleman in early “Lonely Woman” days. . . . all I can see is her elegantly manicured hand, extending her Medi-Cal card above the desk.
Yet for all her mid- and late-life poverty, it is the glamorous diplomatic childhood and travels—principally in Latin America—that give such engaging breadth to the collection. Radical identity shifts can overtake her transplanted narrators. In “So Long,” the narrator is living in Mexico and speaking mostly Spanish and comments on the linguistic strictures of even the most mundane of observations: “Of course I have a self here, and a new family, new cats, new jokes. But I keep trying to remember who I was in English.” Her father was a mining engineer, working for big companies with State Department contacts, a dashing charmer among American expats. She lived for a while with her mother’s family in El Paso when he moved to Chile for work. “Electric Car, El Paso” takes the reader through a sort of animated hodgepodge of life in a turbulent, dirty border town. There is too much dreary reality in such places, and it has to be counterbalanced by freakish objects: “Mrs. Snowdon waited for my grandmother and me to get into her electric car; it looked like any other car except that it was very tall and short, like a car in a cartoon that had run into a wall—a car with its hair standing on end.”
The foreign life comes to full flower, though, once she moves to Santiago to join Berlin pere. Chile is a wonderland, full of breaking waves, parasols, and starfish. Like Thales, she seems to see everything rise from the water of its sinuous coast. She visits the houses of the rich, her father’s clients. She sprawls on sumptuous furniture, plays with manicured dogs on the verandas that look out on palm orchards and jagged-glass peaks of the summer Andes. Detail is the trigger in these stories. The critic Alistair Johnston has it that she would “start with something as simple as the line of a jaw, or a yellow mimosa.” (As quoted in the book’s introduction by Lydia Davis.) The wild asparagus of North America gives way to Borges’s Garden of Forking Paths: lily pads streaming along like verdant saucers, cactus and soccer flags woven with onion garlands on a farmhouse balcony, rocks steaming after a morning rain.
But she never used description to draw attention to itself. She later scolded her writing students to not write anything “clever” or “just pretty.” The minutae always has something deeply human, waiting to be revealed. “Solitude,” she says in “Fool to Cry,” “is an Anglo-Saxon concept. In Mexico City, if you’re the only person on a bus and someone gets on they’ll not only come next to you, they will lean against you.” But she had no illusions about all people being angels south of the border. She knew that the Latin consciousness that D. H. Lawrence naively worshipped as “Blood Knowledge” could also contain treachery, subterfuge, betrayal. In the marvelous “Good and Bad,” the narrator sees selfish, thwarted agendas on the part of a possibly gay teacher in her Santiago middle school. Then the storyteller has the self-knowledge to see the incipient evil within herself.
The instructor is from the lower middle class that is struggling against an ever more imperial government, the one that her father of course works with. The narrator straddles the Marxist bent of her tutor and at the same time the elegant, bourgeois world the grown woman rails against. When the teacher finally tries to run away with the girl, making romantic overtures, the girl is repulsed enough to tell her father, dressing for a round of golf, that the lady “is a communist.” Of course, this is a death sentence for the teacher’s career:
I just blurted it out. It had been a miserable day. I was fed up with Miss Dawson and. . . . that’s all it took. Three words to my father. No one else knew what had happened. The other girls were happy she was gone. We had a free period now even though we would have to make up American history when we got to college. There was nobody to speak to. To say I was sorry.
Intimacy can lead to celebration of a very different human make-up, that of the Whitmanian “adhesiveness” that allows uninhibited sharing, leaning together on a bus seat. But it also leads to the high, open ground of adulthood—that landscape of power, harm, rejection of the needful gesture. Berlin’s narrators seldom use the sharp edge of this folding knife (note the immediate guilt in the last sentence), but know what darkness lays down in the case they have closed it in. Berlin’s narrators evolve in their wisdom, knowing that the soul is neither good nor bad but a constant flux between the two. The little girl was jarred by the teacher’s lustful outreach, but later remembers the saint-like missals of the woman that would be difficult to find in the North. The teacher had taken her to an orphanage for the mentally disabled where “They washed ten faces in a row, all the eyes blind. They fed six mongoloid giants, reaching up with spoons of oatmeal.”
Berlin finally found a place in Boulder, where the poet Ed Dorn ran creative writing and brought her onto the Colorado faculty and where she still wore her hair—on into the nineties—like Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie (did I tell you to look at the jacket photo?). She was the most popular teacher in the English Department’s history, though old habits die hard. She complained of the impersonal atmospherics of Colorado liquor stores, “Gigantic, Target-sized nightmares, where you could die from DTs just trying to find the Jim Beam aisle.”
She wrote to Emerson from there, dying in the University Hospital, disappearing into the shady pantheon of her characters:
Bay Area, New York and Mexico City [were the] only places I didn’t feel I was an other. I just got back from shopping and everybody kept on saying have a great day now and smiling at my oxygen tank, as if it were a poodle or a child.
She wrote till the end (2004), with even her titles starting to swell and boost with beautiful, colloquial helium: “Let Me See You Smile,” “How’d You Get It So Hot?” and my favorite, “So Here It Is Saturday.” Her last letter was to August Kleinzahler, the San Francisco poet and discoverer of great, neglected talents like hers: “Augie, so what is marriage anyway? I never figured it out. And now it is death I don’t understand.”