In the com­pany of a funny and ab­surd drink­ing buddy

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - JOHN SELF

EVENINGINPARADISE LU­CIA BER­LIN Pi­cador, £14.99

WEL­COME HOME LU­CIA BER­LIN Pi­cador, 50pp, £16.99

Three years ago read­ers who de­light in sto­ries of a dis­so­lute and des­per­ate world – slices of life that oc­cupy that sweet spot be­tween Jean Rhys and Ray­mond Carver – were de­liv­ered a very great treat with A Man­ual for Clean­ing Women, the se­lected sto­ries of Lu­cia Ber­lin. Any­one new to Ber­lin should be­gin with that book, a rare col­lec­tion that ben­e­fits from be­ing read se­quen­tially, like chap­ters in a novel. That’s be­cause Ber­lin’s best sto­ries are heav­ily au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, draw­ing on her ex­pe­ri­ences of peri­patetic liv­ing, drudge work and al­co­holism, and to­gether they pro­vide a bro­ken por­trait of the artist, a mem­oir in scraps.

Ber­lin’s es­tate and pub­lish­ers have cap­i­talised on this, and so we get Evening in Par­adise, unar­guably sub­ti­tled More Sto­ries, which con­tains 22 of the sto­ries that weren’t in­cluded in A Man­ual for Clean­ing Women. You might as­sume that these rep­re­sent the crumbs from the ta­ble, the ones not good enough to make the first vol­ume, but that’s not the case. It’s true that the first sto­ries here are fairly tra­di­tional, art­ful and stud­ied and as a con­se­quence not very like “a Lu­cia Ber­lin story”. But you can’t keep a good stylist down, and an authen­tic voice be­gins to come through in sto­ries such as Dust to Dust, which fol­lows the death of the nar­ra­tor’s friend’s brother: “It would have been in poor taste for me to tell the girls at school just how many un­be­liev­ably hand­some men had been at that funeral. I did any­way.”

Art­ful carv­ings

There are other fa­mil­iar el­e­ments: drink­ing (“seven­teen is too young to be an al­co­holic”), life­styles shock­ing to bour­geois ob­servers (“None of you have slip­pers? You drink in the morn­ing? You have no toi­let brush?”), and a par­tic­u­lar strength in very short fic­tion, such as Rainy Day, a prose poem in a dozen lines. “I can stand a dry­ing out. Trou­ble is when I sober up. Al­co­holics think more than most peo­ple and that’s the truth. I drink just to shut off the words.”

With Ber­lin’s sto­ries con­tain­ing such art­ful carv­ings from life, you might won­der about the need for Wel­come Home: A Mem­oir with Se­lected Pho­to­graphs and Let­ters, pub­lished along­side Evening in Par­adise. Her son Jeff Ber­lin says that she in­tended this book to be “sim­ple sketches of the places [she had called home], with no char­ac­ters or di­a­logue” – a trou­bling prom­ise when char­ac­ters and di­a­logue are her great­est strengths. And while the book is beau­ti­fully pro­duced and stacked with colour pho­to­graphs, with­out the pho­tos and let­ters the mem­oir it­self is only 50 pages long. The let­ters, mostly writ­ten in Ber­lin’s late 20s and early 30s, can be dis­patched quickly. They’re largely undis­tin­guished but be­come in­ter­est­ing when she talks about her strug­gles with a novel that was never fin­ished, re­la­tions with a pub­lisher and an agent (“he is a god­damn pimp”), and her grow­ing un­der­stand­ing of her ca­pa­bil­i­ties as a writer.

The mem­oir part of Wel­come Home – those sketches of places she lived in, all over the US as well as in Mex­ico and Chile – was left un­fin­ished at the time of Ber­lin’s death (it ends mid-sen­tence), but is none­the­less an es­sen­tial com­pan­ion to her fic­tion. The irony of the ti­tle be­comes ap­par­ent as we see that Ber­lin lived in dozens of places she called home, while rarely get­ting to know them well be­fore mov­ing on. Ini­tially this was dic­tated by her fa­ther fol­low­ing his work as a min­ing en­gi­neer, later by some­thing in her char­ac­ter that seemed re­sis­tant to sta­bil­ity. And it wasn’t just homes that she went through quickly: at one point, two whirl­wind ro­mances, one of which led to mar­riage, are dis­patched in a sin­gle page. We also see the raw ma­te­rial for her fic­tion: her part­ner Buddy, who was hooked on heroin, be­comes Buzz in the story La Barca de la Ilusión from Evening in Par­adise (“No, she thought, it isn’t go­ing to be al­right. The fear and the des­o­la­tion felt fa­mil­iar to her, like com­ing home.”)

The suc­cinct­ness of these pieces is part of their strength, as is what they omit. When writ­ing about a time in Ari­zona, she asks “Is it pos­si­ble that we were all happy ev­ery day that we lived there?” She doesn’t won­der this about the other 38 places she called home. But for all the up­heaval, the vi­gnettes in Wel­come Home are never de­press­ing. They have too many of the ap­peal­ing qual­i­ties of her sto­ries for that, from eye-catch­ing de­scrip­tion (“her breasts were so enor­mous she had to eat sit­ting side­ways”) to a knack for the ab­surd. When her first hus­band, for ex­am­ple, chose mod­ern fur­nish­ings for their home in Al­bu­querque, she ob­served rue­fully that “the forks had only two tines, so it was dif­fi­cult to eat spaghetti”.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: BUDDY BER­LIN/LIT­ER­ARY ES­TATE OF LU­CIA BER­LIN

Lu­cia Ber­lin: you can’t keep a good stylist down.

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