In Other Words
A Manual for Cleaning Women
In 68 years Lucia Berlin managed to live many lives, nearly all of which are represented in rich detail in the 43 short stories that make up A Manual for Cleaning Women, a new anthology that seems slated to rescue Berlin from obscurity. Born in 1936, Berlin spent her childhood moving among mining camps, her drunken grandfather’s decrepit home in El Paso, and society parties in Santiago, Chile. As an adult, she led a bohemian lifestyle among poets and jazz musicians in Albuquerque, New York, and Mexico. Thrice-divorced and plagued by her own struggle with alcoholism, Berlin moved with her four sons to the Bay Area in the early 1970s, where she worked in schools, hospitals, and the homes of affluent San Franciscans; it was there that she began to publish regularly and, eventually, get sober. In 1994 she moved to Boulder, where she worked as an English professor before retiring and moving to Los Angeles to be closer to her sons. She died in 2004.
A Manual for Cleaning Women is an immersion into Berlin’s unique universe, where characters and settings both sordid and glamorous are treated with equal layers of affection, humor, and unstinting attention to detail. Her stories are set among the various places where she lived, and are narrated by women whose lives closely match Berlin’s. Characters and events reappear: an alcoholic mother; a dentist grandfather in El Paso; a sister dying of cancer in Mexico City. Oftentimes her narrators are educated addicts who have known and lost comfortable lives, who speak with the wisdom of having “voluntarily returned to hell,” as one character puts it, time and again. But Berlin’s work has little to do with that of her contemporary Raymond Carver, whose depictions of working-class (and often alcoholic) characters bend toward bleak despair; instead, Berlin’s stories are much closer in tone to the dark comedy of Chekhov or Tolstoy — yes, her characters have got it bad, but like the author, they’ll live to tell the tale.
Berlin’s descriptions are often pleasantly jarring. She is a master of marrying sharp emotional moments with language that disorients in the instant before it clarifies. In “Electric Car, El Paso,” the narrator accompanies her grandmother and her grandmother’s Bible-quoting friend on a drive in the friend’s electric car. The scene’s plotting is straightforward, but Berlin’s use of language makes the reader readily identify with the weird horror that her protagonists feel. “Her gloved hand passed me fig newtons wrapped in talcumy Kleenex. The cookie expanded in my mouth like Japanese flowers, like a burst pillow. I gagged and wept. Mamie smiled and passed me a sachet-dusted handkerchief, whispered to Mrs. Snowden, who was shaking her head.” Her stories hum and crack with these disruptive moments, which Berlin strings together into the single gleaming thread that carries the reader from lavish resorts in Chile to underfunded detox facilities in central California.
Even when Berlin’s stories veer into melodrama, she avoids pat cliché. In “Mijito,” an American nurse informs a teenage Mexican immigrant that she killed her child in a desperate attempt to soothe its cries. Amelia, the mother, responds with two of the only phrases she knows in English, thrusting a comic dagger into an otherwise weighty scene. “F— a duck. I’m sorry.”
Redemption in Berlin’s stories takes place in the insistent telling and retelling of stories — a mirror to the author’s own process of overcoming her addiction. Berlin’s characters do not shy away or glorify their pasts, which allows them to observe the people around them more fairly than society or even other writers do. That Berlin herself had very nearly seen it all allows her writing to take on extraordinary empathetic depth. In “Let Me See You Smile,” one of the strongest stories in the collection, Berlin moves seamlessly between the perspective of an alcoholic woman abandoned by her family and a wealthy male lawyer. The lawyer is fascinated by the woman’s relationship with her teenaged boyfriend, and decides to take on a case for them at a deep discount. He saves them by telling their story in a way the judge can understand, but in the end, he can only watch as the two “walk away in the drenching rain, each of them deliberately stomping in puddles, bumping gently into each other.” This scene works as an example in miniature of many of Berlin’s stories: profound understanding laid side by side with intense isolation. In Berlin’s hands, however, this feels less like an admission to the hard facts of life and more like a clear-eyed call to arms. We may never fully come outside of ourselves, her writing shows, but we can get pretty damn close.
Unlike writers who point to life’s random cruelties, shrug, and move on, Berlin’s insistence on staring hard at joy and grief in equal measure, over and over, leaves the reader with something more powerful: a refracted portrait of life lived deeply and observed keenly, no matter the difficulty of circumstance. — Lucas Iberico Lozada