September 2015

Lucia Cowles


A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

Since the publication of A Manual for Cleaning Women last month, Lucia Berlin's short stories have been compared to those of Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, and Denis Johnson. Doing so situates Lucia Berlin in the field. Comparison serves to identify her peers and to suggest she receive commensurate praise and recognition, which is a worthwhile, even necessary conversation. But Berlin's stories speak best for themselves.

They have an immediate, magnetic appeal. First, you are disarmed by their narrators' straight talk and sly humor. "I like working in Emergency -- you meet men there, anyway." Or: "The men smell in Mexico. The whole country smells of sex and soap. That's what terrified you, Mama, you and old D. H. Lawrence too." Later you will be seduced by the economy of language, the barrage of sensual detail, the care taken to describe each object, each character, each descriptive action just so. Warmth radiates from these pages. Berlin's writing is brutal, compassionate, self-contradictory, funny. Sex and death, violence and love exist together, sometimes in the same paragraph, sometimes in the same room. It all has the heft, the solid resounding feeling, of truth.

Lucia Berlin published seventy-six stories in her lifetime. A Manual for Cleaning Women contains a little over half of these. Born in Alaska in 1936, she grew up in mining towns in the western United States, in El Paso, and later in Santiago, Chile. Berlin married three times before the age of thirty-five, lived in New York and Mexico City, and then raised four sons on her own while working in Oakland as a cleaning woman, high school teacher, nurse, physician's assistant, etc. She survived childhood abuse, scoliosis and a decades-long fight with alcoholism. The last decade of her life she spent teaching creative writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Berlin lifted much of the stuff in her fiction -- settings, circumstances, major events -- from her life. Then she embellished and exaggerated, switched things around to fit the dramatic requirements of the form. A young girl pulls out all of her grandfather's teeth. Another attends workers' rallies in Santiago. A widowed teacher learns to scuba dive. A teen and his elder mistress spiral into a giddy cyclone of lover's bliss and alcoholism. A sister dies of cancer. A woman crosses the border for an abortion, then watches another woman hemorrhage on the floor.

Berlin describes all this with an inextricable naturalness born out of great labor and technical accomplishment. Her stories jump through time with the seamless ease of a daydream. The prose moves in fluent, luxurious sentences, then picks up the pace, transforming into fragments, turns-of-phrase, exclamations, and quickly noted detail.

And she has a wry, loving kind of humor. The title story is peppered with asides like "(Cleaning Women: You will get a lot of liberated women. First stage is a CR group; second stage is a cleaning woman; third, divorce)." Or, "American women are very uncomfortable about having servants. They don't know what to do while you are here. Mrs. Burke does things like recheck her Christmas card list and iron last year's wrapping paper. In August."

Honesty, contradiction and a keen sense of timing allow Berlin to make us laugh even as she tells difficult truths. In "Silence," her narrator acknowledges: "I don't mind telling people awful things if I can make them funny." In another story, Berlin describes aging:

Most of the time I feel all right about getting old. Some things give me a pang, like skaters. How free they seem, long legs gliding, hair streaming back. Other things throw me into a panic, like BART doors. A long wait before the doors open, after the train comes to a stop. Not very long, but it's too long. There's no time.

She has an evident enthusiasm for language and peculiar diction -- Berlin is a collector who takes pride in resetting linguistic jewels into dramatic frames of her own making. She describes one character as "[a]n eighty-year-old Glenda Jackson. I was bowled over. (See I'm talking like her already). Bowled over in the foyer." In "Let Me See You Smile" Berlin transposes her enthusiasm onto one of her characters: "[W]ords people said made him happy. A black lady who told us she was as old as salt and pepper. Solly saying he up and left his wife when she started gettin' darty-eyed and scissor-billed."

The stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women display a similar avidity for descriptive detail. In "Mourning" the narrator explains, "I love houses, all the things they tell me, so that's one reason I don't mind working as a cleaning woman. It's just like reading a book." In another story Berlin describes a new lover by the contents of each room in his house, the errands he runs, how he speaks with his barber.

And the economy of language! A few sentences from the page-long "Macadam" reveal the priorities of three generations of women:

The three of us said the word often. My mother because she hated where we lived, in squalor, and at least now we would have a macadam street. My grandmother just so wanted things clean -- it would hold down the dust. Red Texan dust that blew in with gray tailings from the smelter, sifting into dunes on the polished hall floor, onto her mahogany table.

I used to say macadam out loud, to myself, because it sounded like the name for a friend.

 It's worth saying here that Berlin's work ought be celebrated not only for its technical accomplishment, but as a testament to a unique period in the history of women's (particularly white women's) lives in North America. Her stories stand next to those of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, and the novels of Mary McCarthy and Joan Chase among others, as a record of the radically different ambitions and life experiences held between generations of women during the twentieth century.

But then, Lucia Berlin writes about cultures of class and work in the United States (and in Mexico and Chile), with a precision and breadth all her own. I can think of no one else who does so with the same compassion or expansive vision. She portrays the minds and habits of cleaning women, destitute alcoholics (winos), and physician's secretaries with the same verve, rich detail, and humanity that she supplies to the dilettante young women of El Paso and Santiago. All of these circumstances reflect, at one time or another, versions of her own reality. She has transformed them into equally imagined realities for the rest of us too, in her fiction.

Remember Fuckhead from Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, standing in the street and peering into other people's houses, unsure of his place. Lucia Berlin's characters sit inside those houses, at their dining room tables. They participate, for better or for worse, as mothers, sisters, employees, and lovers. They drink too much, make love, have children, marry and remarry. They steal sleeping pills from their clients' houses and accidentally send other people's clothes through the wash cycle a second time at the Laundromat. Their tendency toward self-destruction doesn't contradict or diminish their love, or even necessarily their happiness.

Joy is writ large in these pages. Closing A Manual for Cleaning Women felt like departing from home, from the kind of people you can't help but love. To quote the character Jon: "I turned the corner and pulled over to the curb, watched them walk away in the drenching rain, each of them deliberately stomping in puddles, bumping gently into each other."

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374202392
432 pages