“Ma wrote true stories, not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes,” wrote Mark Berlin, one of Lucia’s four sons, on a memorial website published upon her death in 2004, a day that happened to be her 68th birthday. “Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.”
A Manual for Cleaning Women collects forty-three of Lucia Berlin’s stories written “sporadically,” as the book jacket specifies, throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Most readers, even those who take pleasure in rediscovering forgotten genius, will not be familiar with her work. As Stephen Emerson, the collection’s editor, put it, while Berlin has had “one or two thousand dedicated readers… that is far too few.” Emerson is right. Berlin’s language is succinct and tightly focused, its effects on the reader immediate, saturating, and her imagery is crystalline in its formation on the page and in the reader’s mind. Yes, she must be read. Two thousand admirers is far too few for Berlin’s staggering talent.
The engrossing world of Berlin’s fiction is, as her son Mark admits, inspired by her own life. One recurring narrator looks a lot like Berlin: a strong personality who has married three times, birthed four sons, struggles with alcohol, leans nomadic, and works as a cleaning woman, among other transitory vocations. Berlin’s subject matter marks her as what Black Sparrow Press founder John Martin calls a literary “outsider.” Like her fellow Black Sparrow author, Charles Bukowski, Berlin’s focal universe is the American periphery, distinguished by working class struggles, palm trees, addiction and sated passions, a tumultuous world often viewed, and sometimes perpetrated, by a woman. Berlin’s stories provide a fascinating look at what it meant to be a nonconforming female during a time when women’s rights and societal status shifted dramatically.
The brilliance of Berlin’s stories lies in a combination of her precise, incisive language and expert narrative-making. There are stories in this collection whose events will cause the rapid beating, and subsequent crushing, of your heart. In “Silence,” an uncle, driving with a bottle between his thighs and his young niece riding shotgun (a girl whose mother is emotionally abusive, father is absent, grandfather is a pedophile and grandmother is complicit), hits a boy and his collie, speeding away as they lie maimed on the side of the road. In “Carmen,” a pregnant woman travels across the border to Mexico to smuggle drugs for her cough syrup-addicted husband and returns to a slap in the face and a solitary miscarriage.
There are quieter stories too, deceptively simple vignettes that leave the reader in awe, like “Macadam.” Take the story’s opening sentence: “When fresh it looks like caviar, sounds like broken glass, like someone chewing ice.” “Macadam” is a story about being poor and wanting something better and the narrator’s emotional isolation from her mother, all contained in four brief paragraphs.
What comes across, in both types of stories, is Berlin’s mastery of the form.
I hate to keep writing, as the longer you dwell on this page the less you are on Berlin’s, so I will leave the (hopefully) curious reader with an excerpt from perhaps her most famous story, “My Jockey,” which shimmers in less than two pages. The narrator, who works in the emergency room at a hospital, is tending to a Mexican jockey, “a miniature Aztec god” named Muñoz who has broken his collarbone and some ribs, and potentially suffered a concussion. The story closes as follows:
We waited in the dark room for the X-ray tech. I soothed him just as I would a horse. Cálmate, lindo, cálmate. Despacio… despacio. Slowly… slowly. He quieted in my arms, blew and snorted softly. I stroked his fine back. It shuddered and shimmered like that of a splendid young colt. It was marvelous.
In reading Berlin, you will forget where you are sitting, who else is in the house, what you have to do later this afternoon. You will be entranced. With Berlin, the story, above all else, is the thing.