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"A Manual For Cleaning Women" gives readers a chance to discover Berlin's brilliant, heartbreaking short fiction

Hidden gem

Lucia Berlin spent her career in obscurity. Now, she is being hailed as a literary genius

September 1, 2015

One of the protagonists of A Manual for Cleaning Women, an exhilarating new collection of short stories by the late Lucia Berlin, arrives in El Paso for a family reunion to find her relatives in shambles. Her cousin’s husband has gone AWOL. Her aunt is drunk. Her mother has attempted to kill herself for the umpteenth time, and signed her suicide note “Bloody Mary.”

“I had wanted just to come to the reunion and be happy, forget about all my troubles,” the narrator says. “Now they were even worse, with my mother killing herself again.”

Phrases like these—so simple, so piercing, so funny—perfectly encapsulate the quiet wonder of Berlin’s short stories, which are now receiving the sort of widespread recognition that the author did not enjoy during her lifetime. It takes a unique talent to capture the simultaneous sadness and absurdity of a parent who has made numerous and unsuccessful attempts to kill herself. Throughout A Manual For Cleaning Women, Berlin’s prose is by turns brutal and empathetic, tragic and humorous, sometimes within the span of a single sentence.  

The narratives themselves are whirlwinds too. Their settings swing from the drug-addled slums of Oakland to the lush homes of American expats in Chile. Berlin’s protagonists are privileged children, college students, teachers, addicts, hospital clerks, and cleaning women. All of these characters ring achingly true, perhaps because they are often fictional manifestations of Berlin’s own experiences.

Lucia Berlin was born in Alaska in 1936. Her father was as a mining engineer, her mother a mercurial drunk. Berlin spent her early years in remote mining towns in Idaho, Kentucky, and Montana. Her father enlisted during WWII, and Berlin’s mother moved the family to her parent’s home in El Paso. Berlin’s grandfather was a successful but severely alcoholic dentist. One of the more raucous stories in the collection features a character modeled on his likeness, who instructs his granddaughter to pull his rotten teeth out with a pair of pliers. “The towel in his mouth was soaked crimson now,” the young narrator says. “I dropped it on the floor, shoved a handful of tea bags into his mouth and held his jaws closed. I screamed. Without any teeth, his face was like a skull, white bones above the vivid bloody throat.”

When Berlin’s father returned from the war, the family relocated to Santiago, Chile, and settled in among the country’s upper crust. A beautiful young woman, Berlin became a frequent hostess of her father’s parties, while her mother stayed locked in her room, drunk. 

Berlin eventually went on to marry three different men and have four sons. She lived in California, Colorado, New York, and Mexico. For a substantial portion of her life, she battled alcoholism, weaving in and out of  drunk tanks. She took jobs as a hospital clerk, an office administrator, a schoolteacher, and a cleaning woman. In periodic and illustrious spurts, Berlin also wrote fiction.

When she was 24, Berlin published her first short story in Saul Bellow’s The Noble Savage magazine. It was a promising start to a career that never soared. Though she was very popular in certain literary circles and released three collections with a mid-sized publisher, Berlin did not become a widely-known, bestselling author. She spent her last working years as an associate professor at the University of Colorado, until she could no longer tolerate the high-altitudes—her lung had been crushed by the scoliosis that plagued her since childhood. Berlin moved to California and died there in 2004, on her 68th birthday. In a review of her collection Safe and Sound, Paul Metcalf referred to Berlin as “one of America’s best-kept secrets.”

The recent publication of A Manual For Cleaning Women by Farrar, Staruss & Giroux seeks to bring Berlin into the spotlight, and the initiative appears to have been successful. Recent reviews of the collection have gushingly compared Berlin’s writing to that of ChekovJames JoyceRaymond Carver, and Alice Munro. It is high and appropriate praise.

In A Manual For Cleaning Women, Berlin reveals herself to be a master of the condensed narrative. Her stories are filled with turns and surprises, some of them jarring. “Everything was grim,” the protagonist of “Panteon De Dolores” says of her mother’s childhood. “And scary probably, if Grandpa did to her what he did to both Sally and me. She never said anything about it, but he must have, since she hated him so much, would never let anybody touch her, not even shake hands.” It is a searing aside, dropped into the narrative without ceremony. In “So Long,” the narrator deftly jumps from past memories of her lovers and sons, to the present sadness of her sister’s imminent death. As always, Berlin’s writing is unadorned, sometimes fragmented. Still, it is laden with complexity:

“I don’t regret my alcoholism anymore. Before I left California my youngest son, Joel, came to breakfast. The same son I used to steal from, who told me I wasn’t his mother. I cooked cheese blintzes; we drank coffee and read the paper, muttering to each other about Ricky Henderson, George Bush. Then he went to work. He kissed me and said So long, Ma. So long, I said.”

At times, however, Berlin’s prose is lyrical, transforming the sordid—psych wards, detox centers, public transit—into something sublime. “I like to sort of cross my eyes and watch the dryers full of Indian clothes blurring the brilliant swirling purples and oranges and reds and pinks,” the narrator says in “Angel’s Laundromat.” In the emergency room setting of “My Jockey,” images of broken bones “look like trees, like reconstructed brontosaurs. St. Sebastian’s X-rays.”

A Manual For Cleaning Women gives readers the chance to discover and enjoy Berlin’s short stories, in all their rugged, uncompromising beauty. For that, we are very fortunate indeed.