“As far back as I can remember,” reflects the narrator of Lucia Berlin’s short story “Stars and Saints”, “I have made a very bad first impression.” So much of Berlin’s distinctive world-view is concentrated in the resounding simplicity of that single sentence, with its swarming upper partials of regret, glee, nostalgia and a certain defiant comic fatalism.
Berlin, who died on her 68th birthday, 12 November 2004, led a turbulent life. She was born in Alaska, where her father worked as a mining engineer, and spent her early childhood in mining camps in Idaho, Montana and Arizona before moving in 1941 with her mother and younger sister to live with her grandparents in El Paso. Her grandfather, “the best dentist in West Texas”, later inspired her fearsome child’s-eye account of gonzo dentistry, “Dr H A Moynihan”. On her father’s return from war service the family settled in Chile, where Lucia learned fluent Spanish.
As a child she was diagnosed with scoliosis (spinal curvature), for which she had to wear a metal brace. She studied at the University of New Mexico, where she met the poet Edward Dorn and began to write. Strikingly beautiful, she married and divorced three times by the age of 32 and had four sons, whom she raised while working as a teacher, nurse, cleaning woman and switchboard operator, and struggling with the alcoholism from which her mother, grandfather and uncle also suffered.
These experiences are recorded with jewelled directness in the 76 short stories that Berlin composed during her lifetime. She received an American Book Award in 1991 for her collection Homesick, but popular success came only posthumously, when the present selection of 43 stories made the New York Times bestseller list on its US publication this summer.
Berlin writes about extremities of shame, humiliation and degradation with a ferocious elegance that allows neither bleakness nor sentimentality: “I don’t mind telling people awful things if I can make them funny,” says the narrator of “Silence”, the story of a disastrous childhood (“home was bad and school was bad”) in which graceful gestures of kindness and friendship are briefly proffered and as swiftly lost.
“Silence”, like many of Berlin’s stories, ends with a slashing final sentence that acknowledges the possibility of grace, while firmly closing it down. Considering a childhood incident in which her beloved uncle, then a hopeless drunk, now sweetly sober, ran over a boy and his dog with his pick-up truck and drove on, the narrator remarks, “Of course by this time I had realized all the reasons why he couldn’t stop the truck, because by this time I was an alcoholic.”
The depth of Berlin’s experience as the child of an alcoholic family and an alcoholic mother herself, as pupil and teacher, patient and nurse, lends her writing a complex humanity, to which she brings a glittering sense of the strangeness of the world. In “Temps Perdu”, a minute detail – the “little beady black eyes laughing from epicanthic gray-white folds” of an old diabetic – blooms into a rapturous, exquisitely controlled recollection of childhood friendship.
The editorial arrangement by Berlin’s friend Stephen Emerson is particularly sensitive to the jazzy musicality of the stories, with their vivid observational grace notes (“The fields around the county jail are like the grounds of a French castle”) and looping thematic riffs. Detox is a recurring figure. The fragile hopefulness and undertow of dread of “Her First Detox” (“I think I’ve had [delirium tremens] all my life, if, in fact, they are visions of demons”) fragments into scalding shame in “Unmanageable”, whose narrator, struggling shakily through the streets of Oakland to buy vodka at six in the morning, returns to her apartment (where the bookshelves are lined with titles by Jane Austen and Paul Auster) to plead for the return of the keys and wallet confiscated by her 13-year-old son. “You can’t stop anymore without a hospital, Ma,” he tells her.
Laundromats are another leitmotif, with their opportunities for the lengthy contemplation of the intimate detail of other people’s lives: the narrator of “Angel’s Laundromat”, wanting to dye a bedspread, drives across town to an Albuquerque laundry with a sign reading “YOU CAN DIE HERE ANYTIME”. Cleaning, too, offers a tempting cache of material: “I love houses, all the things they tell me . . .” the narrator of “Mourning” remarks. “It’s just like reading a book.” In the title story, a psychiatrist asks his cleaning woman why she chose this particular line of work. “I figure it’s either guilt or anger,” she drawls.
Each of these stories is like that: the narrative blade so sharp that you don’t feel it go in, until suddenly you notice that it has drawn blood, or tears, or laughter. One might think it a pity that Berlin didn’t live to enjoy her success, but the fierce virtuosity of this collection suggests little cause for regret. These perfectly poised cadences are the work of a writer who knew exactly how good she was.
A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin is published by Picador (352pp, £16.99)
This article appears in the 11 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain