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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • PLANNING & BUILDING DIRECTOR
    Searching for candidates with a Bachelor's Degree in Planning, Community Development, or a related field with 7 years' experience in land use planning forums, including...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...