Overlooked author Lucia Berlin gets brought back to the light

'A Manual for Cleaning Women,' her posthumous book of stories, reveals a formidable talent.

 

A Manual for Cleaning Women
Lucia Berlin
432 pages, hardcover: $26.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Lucia Berlin was a Western writer of rare brilliance. When she died in Marina del Rey, California, in 2004, her fans were ardent, but few in number, perhaps because she wrote short stories and published her six collections with small presses. Her final three books appeared under the imprint of Black Sparrow Press, a California publisher known for featuring legendary outsiders like Charles Bukowski and John Fante. Berlin’s work is at least the equal of theirs.

Berlin’s admirers have long worked to keep her writing in front of readers, and now, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has published a posthumous selection of her work, A Manual for Cleaning Women, that demonstrates her mastery of the short story form. Berlin’s stories, many of them semi-autobiographical, create indelible portraits of 20th century Western communities, generally seen from the bottom up, through the eyes of people on the margins — neglected children in mining camps, alcoholics on the streets of Oakland, and Mexican immigrant patients at subsidized medical clinics.

Describing the subjects of Berlin’s stories can make her sound like a connoisseur of misery — but in fact, beauty, grace and humor are the resonant notes in her work, no matter how many minor chords she plays to achieve them. Take, for example, this scene from “Emergency Room Notebook 1977,” in which the narrator sits on a bus with a blind man whose wife has just died. “He was very funny, describing his new, messy roommate at the Hilltop House for the Blind. I couldn’t imagine how he could know his roommate was messy, but then I could and told him my Marx Brothers idea of two blind roommates — shaving cream on the spaghetti, slipping on spilled stuffaroni, etc. We laughed and were silent, holding hands … from Pleasant Valley to Alcatraz Avenue. He cried, softly. My tears were for my own loneliness, my own blindness.”

Born in Alaska in 1936, Berlin grew up in mining camps in Idaho, Montana and Washington. Much like a character in one of her own stories, she spent her childhood “moving too often to make a friend.”  While Berlin’s father served in World War II, she lived with her grandfather, a respected but alcoholic dentist in El Paso. Berlin’s mother was also an alcoholic — a heartless woman, whose memory haunts her daughter’s stories. Berlin spent her life searching for and at times creating communities that would give her the love and acceptance she lacked at home. At one point, she lived near a Syrian family in El Paso. They became the inspiration for the family in her short story “Silence.”  “I gradually became a part of the Haddad family,” the narrator says. “I believe that if this had not happened I would have grown up to be not just neurotic, alcoholic, and insecure, but seriously disturbed. Wacko.”

Lucia Berlin in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1963. Prince Aly Khan, the third husband of Rita Hayworth, lit Berlin’s first cigarette when she lived in Chile.
Buddy Berlin/Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin LP

After World War II, Berlin’s family moved to Santiago, Chile, where her father oversaw mines and the family’s fortunes soared. The teenage Berlin lived like a debutante, attending balls; her first cigarette was lit by Prince Aly Khan, the third husband of Rita Hayworth. She often uses this period of her life as a moving contrast to grittier moments. The prince appears briefly in the bittersweet “Angel’s Laundromat,” a story about a striking Jicarilla Apache the narrator meets at a down-and-out Albuquerque Laundromat, where they recognize the signs of alcoholism in each other and simply abide with one another while their laundry churns.

 Berlin began studying at the University of New Mexico in 1955, where she married a sculptor and had two sons before her husband left her. She married and divorced two more times, had two more sons with her third husband, and raised her four boys while working a variety of jobs, frequently teaching or working in hospitals or medical offices.  In 1994, Berlin moved to Boulder, where she became a beloved and influential creative writing teacher at the University of Colorado.

Berlin’s stories often feature a first-person protagonist based on herself, frequently named Lucia, a woman who is perpetually seeking community and finds it in unexpected places. At a Catholic school Berlin attended, the other children shunned her because of her awkwardness and the back brace she wore for severe scoliosis. She found acceptance among the nuns in the kitchen during recess. In “Stars and Saints,” the narrator helps the nuns remove dead mice from traps and in return is allowed to linger with them. “And the nuns were so pleased they didn’t say anything about me being in the kitchen, except one of them did whisper ‘Protestant’ to another one.”

As Berlin’s protagonists grow up, they plunge into romances, experience heartbreak, job loss, alcoholism and motherhood, and find themselves tossed into new communities. The narrator in “Angel’s Laundromat” says wryly, “Anybody says he knows just how someone else feels is a fool,” but Berlin lived so many different lives that she could evoke the authentic feelings of a tremendous range of people. Her insights mark her not as a fool, but as a seer, a singular observer of the human experience who deserves to be read for generations to come.

Jenny Shank’s novel The Ringer won the High Plains Book Award and was a finalist for the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association’s award. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Guardian and others.