A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 405 pages)
By Harvey Freedenberg
If you are at all familiar with the history of the contemporary American short story, you will be well-acquainted with names like Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford. Sometimes described as “dirty realists,” their terse, often bleak stories focus on the difficult lives of the residents of shabby apartments and trailer parks, people employed at tedious, low-paying jobs, if they’re employed at all.
Lucia Berlin, who died in 2004, mined that same territory for her gritty stories, but her work, published mostly in limited-circulation literary magazines during her lifetime, was appreciated by only a small fraction of the audience of her better-known male contemporaries.
The 43 stories collected in A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories should go a long way toward redressing that imbalance. In these frank, sharply observed tales of people on the margins of society, struggling against their own shortcomings or against the hardships inflicted on them by a pitiless world, Berlin reveals time and again that she’s a writer with a considerable gift for exposing the interplay between character and circumstance.
As Lydia Davis points out in her foreword to this volume, many of Berlin’s stories are strongly autobiographical. After her birth in Alaska in 1936, her father’s job as a mining engineer meant frequent moves, ones that took her to Idaho, Kentucky, Montana and El Paso, Texas, where she lived with family during World War II, and included a period of prosperity in Santiago, Chile. As an adult, she was married to two jazz musicians, the second of whom brought her to Mexico. She lived for some 17 years in Oakland, Calif., working at jobs that included high-school teacher, physician’s assistant and, yes, cleaning woman, battling alcoholism for much of that time.
It’s not surprising, then, to feel the hot, dusty wind of the American Southwest, as it sweeps at times over the border into Mexico, whistling through the pages of A Manual for Cleaning Women. That’s true of stories like “Tiger Bites,” where a young woman from Texas must flee to Mexico for an abortion in the days before the procedure became legal in the United States, or “Carmen,” the terrifying story of another pregnant woman who’s pressed into service by her addict boyfriend as a drug courier on a perilous trip from Albuquerque to Juárez. “Mijito” is the heartbreaking account of a homeless teenaged Mexican immigrant in Oakland who finds herself unequal to the task of caring for her infant son. In these stories, and others like them, Berlin is able to display surpassing compassion for her characters without minimizing the gravity of their mistakes and misdeeds.
She also writes with beauty and humanity about these mostly female protagonists. “Toda Luna, Todo Año” is the gorgeous story of an American teacher who falls in love with an itinerant fisherman while vacationing in Mexico after the death of her husband. That same fisherman reappears in the tale “Grief,” one of several set in Mexico City that feature two sisters, Dolores and Sally, as the latter slowly is dying of cancer. Recurring characters like these are a common feature of Berlin’s stories.
Though these descriptions of the plight of a typical Berlin character may give the impression that this collection is unremittingly grim, she consistently leavens that darkness with bright flashes of humor. In “A Love Affair,” a middle-aged, part-time receptionist in a gynecologist’s office is told by the women in her support group that she needs to have an affair to put more “zip” into her life. Her execution of that advice is, by any measure, less than ideal. Lucille, the narrator of “502,” recounts, with deadpan wit, a bizarre incident involving the nearly catastrophic consequences of careless parking during her long-ago drinking days in Oakland.
Berlin has a gift for figurative writing, as when she describes how jacks on concrete sound “like brushes on a drum or like rain, when a gust of wind shimmers it against the windowpane.” In one comically grisly scene, the sound of a dentist pulling his own teeth brings to mind “roots being ripped out, like trees being torn from winter ground.”
Most of these stories are short, often less than 10 pages, but feel much more substantial. The opening of “So Long,” which moves from the protagonist’s adultery to her divorce from that same lover in the space of two crisp paragraphs, is one of many masterpieces of compression, while its ending, reuniting the former lovers, at least on the telephone, is nothing short of breathtaking.
Though most of its subject matter is anything but pleasant, A Manual for Cleaning Women overflows with memorable characters and incident. It’s sad that the critical acclaim that’s been lavished on this volume couldn’t have occurred when Lucia Berlin was here to enjoy it, but her work should earn her a place on the list of writers whose fiction, undervalued in their own time, deserves to endure.
Email Harvey Freedenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @HarvF.