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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A Manual for Cleaning Women

I had never heard of Lucia Berlin until her short story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, was chosen by the New York Times as one of its ten best books of 2015. I'm not completely alone. Berlin, who died in 2004, was mostly published in small presses, and had three collections published during her lifetime, but she never really hit it big.

Reading these stories was a real eye-opener, and I'm glad to be exposed to her work. She wrote about what she knew. She was a single mother of four boys, an alcoholic, had a sister with breast cancer, lived all over the place (Alaska, Oakland, El Paso, Chile) and had a variety of jobs, including being a cleaning woman, a switchboard operator, and a creative writing teacher.

Most of these tales are about the down-and-out in dusty towns. I love "Angel's Laundromat" (her titles are simple and direct): "She lived above me, in 4-C. One morning at the laundry she gave me a key and I took it. She said that if I didn’t see her on Thursdays it meant she was dead and would I please go find her body. That was a terrible thing to ask of someone; also then I had to do my laundry on Thursdays."

The title story is the best, in it we learn things like: "Poor people wait a lot. Welfare, unemployment lines, laundromats, phone booths, emergency rooms, jails, etc." and "Once he told me he loved me because I was like San Pablo Avenue. He was like the Berkeley dump." Her sentences are often incomplete, and reading them is like listening to a drum beat: "42–PIEDMONT. Slow bus to Jack London Square. Maids and old ladies."

She has many stories about her alcoholism, such as in the story "502": "502 was the clue for 1-Across in this morning’s Times. Easy. That’s the police code for Driving While Intoxicated, so I wrote in DWI. Wrong. I guess all those Connecticut commuters knew you were supposed to put in Roman numerals." In the same story she has left her car in neutral in a parking lot, and it rolls down the street into another vehicle. But the cop can't give her a ticket, because she wasn't driving at the time. The last line of the story is "Of course I had other encounters with Officer Wong after that one, not pleasant at all."

There are many stories about her sister Sally, who has breast cancer and was disowned by their mother for marrying a Mexican. The best is "Grief," about the sisters reconnecting in a Mexican resort after their mother dies, but another is called "Mama" and is simply a dialogue as they remember their mother's cruelty. "'She was witty. You have to admit it. Like when she’d give panhandlers a nickel and say, ‘Excuse me, young man, but what are your dreams and aspirations?’ Or when a cabdriver was surly she’d say, ‘You seem rather thoughtful and introspective today.’"

The greatest thing about Berlin, who seemed to bleed onto the page, was that she was able to hit the low notes as well as the high. She could make a simple joke like "It’s not so strange that I talk to my cat but I feel silly because he is totally deaf" work, or then just let the magic happen in a passage like: I’d chew ice when the lemonade was finished, swaying with my grandmother on the porch swing. We gazed down upon the chain gang paving Upson Street. A foreman poured the macadam; the convicts stomped it down with a heavy rhythmic beat. The chains rang; the macadam made the sound of applause."

Lucia Berlin belongs in the same breath with other great American short story writers. She especially reminds me of Flannery O'Connor. Seek her out.

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