I became aware of a twitter stir about this book last autumn. The title struck me as original, but I had never heard of the author. Eventually I wrote it on my tbr list, and soon after that requested it from my local library. Here it is and I must give it back after only 3 weeks because another reader has reserved it.
What have we here?
43 short stories by an American writer who died in 2004. Lucia Berlin was known and admired by some, but with the publication of this collection it is expected she will have something of a renaissance.
Many of the stories appear to be based on her own life. The same characters and situations are revisited: her sister dying of cancer in Mexico City, receptionist job in a doctor’s surgery, Oakland, Boulder. The blurb and introduction by Stephen Emerson tell us something of her life: three husbands, four sons, alcoholism, conquering alcoholism, an itinerant life.
The stories show the writer’s ability to enter the lives of her characters, sometimes two in one story. And some read almost as if she had responded to people saying oh, you should write a story about that.
A collection with 43 stories has many themes: living at the very bottom of the heap, needing to find a few coins to get the next bottle, knowing exactly when each liquor stores opens in the morning, the consequences of ignorance and naivety in a cruel world, illness, exploitation, and above all addiction.
I lost count of the stories in which addiction, usually to alcohol but also to heroin, rob the characters of their humanity. They abandoned self-respect, they are exploited and betrayed, and they suffer.
Yet these are not stories of misery. She also observes many actions of extreme kindness and generosity: the tenderness and attention to the sister who is dying of cancer; people who stay after hours, persuade others to do a little more for the unfortunates, the friendships made.
502 is a story about the protection given by four older guys to Miss Lou. The men re alcoholics who spent their days in a broken down old car. Their joshing made it impossible for the local policeman to prosecute Miss Lou for a driving offence. Some bonds are forged in extremis. And the sting in the tale of the story is that Officer Wong was known to be a kind cop.
As the stories follow one another, however, the reader accumulates a picture of the precariousness of life, how easily people can be tripped up and betrayed and end up in desperate situations.
Lucia Berlin writes with little outward emotion, almost deadpan, but she makes circumstances clear. Silence is a story about her beloved Uncle John, an important person in her childhood in a dysfunctional family. But out in the truck with him one day she witnesses him hurting a dog and a boy in an accident. He does not stop and nothing is said. The reader wonders about all this until the end of the story, when the narrator, now an adult catches up with her elderly uncle. ‘Of course by this time I had realised all the reasons why he couldn’t stop the truck, because by this time I was an alcoholic.’ (332).
Writing about very painful things is hard to do well. Lucia Berlin does not overwrite, and the evenness of the distance she keeps us from her events and characters heightens the pain, the despair. Without commentary she observe the small details of life that tell of bigger things. She trusts her readers to approach the stories intelligently, lets us do some of the work.
The title story is a masterpiece: saying things while writing about others. It has humour, wit and acute observation. The narrator used to be much better off, but now must join those who use public transport, must earn their living cleaning up after profligate people. She sees the dirty side of life. Here are some extracts from A Manual for Cleaning Women.
This practice tells you all you need to know about the cleaning woman and her relationship with her employers:
The minute I get to work, I first check out where the watches are, the rings, the gold lame evening purses. Later when they come running in all puffy and red-faced I just coolly say, “Under your pillow, behind the avocado toilet.” All I really steal is sleeping pills, saving up for a rainy day. (27)
She describes how to get your employer to notice your work.
My masterpiece in this area was when I cleaned the top of Mrs Burke’s refrigerator. She sees everything, but if I hadn’t left the flashlight on she would have missed the fact that I scoured and re-oiled the waffle iron, mended the geisha girl, and washed the flashlight as well. (35)
And the misunderstandings, in this case in the home of a pair of psychiatrists:
Once I bought Natasha, four years old, a black sequined blouse. For dress-up. Ms Dr Blum got furious and hollered that it was sexist. For a minute I thought she was accusing me of trying to seduce Natasha. She threw the blouse in the garbage. I retrieved it later and wear it now, sometimes, for dress-up. (32)
And a typical acute observation:
Women’s voices always rise two octaves when they talk to cleaning women and cats. (31)
These extracts also illustrate two particular skills of Lucia Berlin: the use of lists and her deadpan humour. Try her!
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. Published in 2015 by Picador 399pp
You can read one short story – Friends – on Vice website here.
Dwight Garner’s review in the New York Times from August 2015.
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