The stories in the late Lucia Berlin’s marvelous collection “A Manual for Cleaning Women” are terrifically varied. But no moment is more immediately arresting than the scene in “Dr. H.A. Moynihan” where Berlin describes a girl’s frantic efforts to help get her drunk grandfather ready for a set of false teeth. A rough and tumble local dentist, her grandfather has just passed out after having the narrator help tug out his bad teeth with a pair of pliers:
“The towel in his mouth was soaked crimson now. 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. Scary monster, a teapot come alive, yellow and black Lipton tags dangling like parade decorations. I ran to phone my mother.”
The narrator’s mother arrives, in her own grand style, only after the grandfather is awake and, surrounded by the detritus of the procedure, considering his new teeth in an ivory mirror: “ ‘Oh my God.’ My mother shrieked, came toward me with her arms outstretched. She slipped in the blood and slid into the teeth barrels. She held on to get her balance.”
If most of the stories gathered in “A Manual for Cleaning Women” are quieter than “Dr. H.A. Moynihan,” they almost always feature characters who, if not slipping into barrels of teeth, are as physically or emotionally off balance as this narrator’s mother. Sometimes, it is blood on the floor that has caused the disturbance; other times, it is the messy aftermath of death, divorce, alcohol abuse or poverty’s hard knocks. Rather than dwelling on the difficulties faced, or chasing after illusory solutions, Berlin’s characters sit with their challenges, move quietly toward their difficulties and find a way to keep standing on their slick and tilted floors.
In “Toda Luna, Todo Año,” a woman contending with the death of a loved one has traveled to Mexico. Her days are composed of simple gestures. “Eloise woke at six, as usual. She opened the shutters, watched the sky turn from milky silver to lavender gray. Palm branches slipped in the breeze like shuffled cards. She put on her bathing suit and her new rose dress.” A few pages later, we find Eloise in the company of scuba divers who fish for a living. She begins to accompany them on their dives, moving gently down into her own depths, as well as into very real ones. “A suspension of time. A multiplicity of time because of the gradations of light and dark, of cold and warm. Down past layers, strata, each with a distinct hierarchy of coexisting plants and fish.”
Through measured use of sentence fragments, unexpected word choices and fascinating juxtapositions, Berlin’s stories embody rather than merely describe the challenges faced by her marginalized narrators and protagonists. At their most inventive, these stories switch direction as frequently as the buses in the title story, which comprises a house cleaner’s wry journal that she writes on public transportation. Unlike the chiseled tales of her contemporary Raymond Carver, to whom she has been compared, Berlin’s beautiful, rangy prose builds into unpredictable shapes that speak of the sprawling rural and urban western and South American landscapes that fueled her imagination. Indeed, this collection is rich in references to California, Chile, New Mexico, Alaska and Colorado: all places she knew. The jobs her characters hold are ones she held, and one can feel in almost every sentence how clearly and deeply she (and so her characters ) saw the world around her:
“All day long the heavy hearselike Cadillacs of Care Ambulance back up just to the left of emergency parking. All day long, just outside my window, their gurneys sail past to cobalt, radiation therapy. The ambulances are gray, the drivers wear gray, the blankets are gray, the patients are yellow-gray except where the doctors have marked their skulls or throats with a dazzling red Magic Marker X.”
Berlin, who died in 2004, skillfully built her own experience into her stories throughout her career and spoke about the benefits of doing so when she taught, as I heard firsthand when I took a course with her in Boulder, Colo., in the ’90s. Indeed, Berlin was writing autobiographical fiction long before the current celebrated crop of autofictioneers took up their pens. One hopes that Berlin’s rediscovered stories will exert their salubrious influence, and that we might see more fiction struck from the fire of the lived experience of younger writers that is as full of humor and tenderness and emphatic grace as Berlin’s are.
In the meantime, those not lucky enough to have yet encountered the writing of Lucia Berlin are in for some high-grade pleasure when they make first contact. As Lydia Davis writes in her thoughtful introduction to “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” “This is exhilarating writing.”
Laird Hunt is the author, most recently, of “Neverhome.”
By Lucia Berlin
Farrar Straus Giroux. 403 pp. $26