Lucia Berlin: A Manual For Cleaning Women.


I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t want to read her, says Stephen Emerson in his introduction.

I won’t waste words telling you about Lucia Berlin’s verve, her zest for life, her humour, her eye, her ear and her psychological understanding. You can sample it for yourself:

Crouching, I reached up and hung on to the carved gold flowerpots above the dirty windows. The straps for holding on were rotted, stringy, dangled beneath the flowerpots like old wings. Hanging on this way I was suspended high in the air, swayed above the back seats of other cars where I could see bags of groceries, babies playing in ashtrays, Kleenex boxes.  (Electric Car, El Paso, 155)

After a long time the cranes did come. Hundreds, just as the sky turned blue-gray. They landed in slow motion on brittle legs. Washing, preening on the bank. Everything was suddenly black and white and gray, a movie after the credits, churning.

As the cranes drank upstream the silver water beneath them was shot into dozens of thin streamers. Then very quickly the birds left, in whiteness with the sound of shuffling cards.(Teenage Punk, 165)

As far back as I can remember I have made a very bad first impression. That time in Montana when all I was trying to do was to get Kent Shreve’s socks off so we could go barefoot but they were pinned to his drawers. (Stars and Saints, 18).

I told my mother I wanted to become a Catholic.  She and my grandpa had a fit. He wanted to put me back in Vilas school but she said no, it was full of Mexicans and juvenile delinquents. I told her there were lots of Mexicans at St Joseph’s but she said they came from nice families. Were we a nice family? I didn’t know. What I still do is look in picture windows where families are sitting around and wonder what they do, how do they talk to one another?  (Stars and Saints, 23)

Cesar motioned her to wait, held her back in the cold darkness. Particles of gold dust filtered in the murky purple. A blue parrot fish. Silence. Then they came. A school of barracuda. There was nothing else in the sea. Endless, subliminal, hundreds of them. The dim light turned their quick slickness into molten silver. Cesar shot, shattering them into a spill of mercury that flowed quickly back together and disappeared.  (Toda Luno, Toda Ano, 123)

Miss Dawson thought that she was reaching impressionable young minds, whereas she was talking to spoiled American brats. Each one of us had a rich, handsome, powerful American daddy. Girls feel about their fathers at that age like they do about horses. It is a passion. She implied that they were villains. (Good and Bad, 126)

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge is often mentioned as the  first short story collection in which the interlinked stories make a kind of novel. That was published in 2008.  Lucia Berlin’s first collection  Angel’s Laundromat was published in 1981. Her stories, too, make a novel, a novel about the extraordinary life of Lucia Berlin, poor kid in El Paso, rich kid in Santiago, single mother in New York, recovered alcoholic, three times married and divorced (her last husband a heroin addict), teacher, switchboard operator, hospital ward clerk, cleaning lady, professor of creative writing.

I exaggerate a lot, and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don’t lie, says one of her characters.

One way and another her material is all drawn from her own life, but she speaks in many different voices. It’s not, in the end, about her; her eyes are wide open looking out at the world, a gift she inherited from her alcoholic, suicidal mother:

We have remembered your way of looking, never missing a thing. You gave us that. Looking.

She told her students not to try to be clever. The story has to be “real”.  And these stories feel real, partly because of the directness of the voice and partly because they make the emotional and psychological links we feel but can’t articulate in our own lives. Why can the confused little girl of Stars and Saints not bear the tenderness in the eyes of a kind nun? Why, after the understanding and sympathy of her recollections of her mother’s early life in Mama, when her sister cries and says, “If only I had let her know how much I loved her,”  does the narrator finish, “Me…I have no mercy.”  To explain why would be like trying to explain a joke. These feelings can never be fully articulated, they can only be brought to light by the story’s momentum.  It’s a real art to be so sure-footed when you’re so close to the experiences and the emotions associated with them. That’s what she achieves, not always, but often.  There are some extraordinary stories here: Dr H. A. Moynihan, about her grandfather the dentist, Carmen, about a pregnant woman sent by her husband to score heroin for him, El Tim about a Spanish teacher trying to deal with a charismatic bad boy from the detention home who takes over her class, Good and Bad about the plain, naive American teacher who sets out to change the thinking of her spoiled pupil by showing her the reality behind the glamour of Santiago,  the wry, enchanting Electric Car, El Paso, about a trip in Mrs Snowdon’s electric car – very tall and short, like a car in a cartoon that had run into a wall. A car with its hair standing on end.

I’d like to know if the stories that come earlier in the book were chosen from the earlier collections, because I liked them better. Maybe it’s the surprise of this fresh voice that just strolls into your life, talking.

I don’t know what makes a writer’s voice. It’s dozens of things. There are people who write who don’t have it. They’re tone-deaf, even though they’re very fluent. It’s an ability, like anything else, being a doctor or a veterinarian, or a musician. There’s a kind of poetic mind that sees connections between things. I think that ability to make connections is part of the open secret of what a writer does.  (Paula Fox*)

*Fox herself is a terrific writer, for both children and adults, who is not nearly as well-known as she should be. Start with Desperate Characters if you don’t know her.

12 thoughts on “Lucia Berlin: A Manual For Cleaning Women.

    1. Yes, it’s a great title. It’s the title of one of the stories which is an inner monologue of a cleaning lady on the bus on the way home from work, thinking about all the people she works for.

        1. She does. She worked as a cleaning woman herself so she had lots of material. She says it’s like reading a very interesting book being free to roam around someone else’s house and seeing how different people live.

            1. Too true, Leslie. Your cleaning lady’s book will be out later this month, and she has already secured film rights. The good news is that you’ll be played by Paris Hilton.

  1. Right, I’m back for a proper read now. I love the excepts you’ve quoted here (especially the first three). There is a rare sense of authenticity in these stories – they feel so emotionally truthful. I’m trying to think of when I last read a collection of stories that affected me as deeply as these. Good point about the dates and references. Notes on the original publication dates would have been helpful!

    1. I’ve just been reading a collection of short stories by Fiona Mcfarlane, an Australian writer who wrote a very good debut novel, and Lucia Berlin came to mind for exactly that authenticity. McFarlane is a good writer, but I felt as if she wasn’t really at ease with her material, was stretching beyond her imaginative powers. Just trying too hard. Not that writing like Berlin’s is easy (she was apparently a tough taskmaster with her students) but as you said in your review you never feel she’s steering the story.

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