When she died in 2004, Lucia Berlin had published seventy-seven short stories, survived years of domestic abuse and alcoholism, travelled extensively throughout both American continents, and worked as a high school teacher, switchboard operator, hospital ward clerk, cleaning woman, and physician’s assistant. She studied at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where she earned an M.A., and late in her life she taught as an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Although Berlin began publishing when she was twenty-four in Saul Bellow’s journal, The Noble Savage, and in the Atlantic Monthly, New American Writing, and other small-press magazines, her work remained largely unknown except to a small but dedicated readership. I knew her writing thanks to three important books published by John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press in the 1990s: Homesick (1991), So Long (1993), and Where I Live Now (1999). Her generosity to everyday people and situations, the playful treatments of her day-job employment in schools and hospitals, and the close scrutiny she gave to her alcohol dependence revealed a writer of penetrating self-insight and risk. In addition to the charm that animates her style, a tremendous joy in close observation invigorates landscapes, characters, and situations. While her life serves as the basic source material for her stories, Berlin has a profound ability to see through time’s accumulating moments as if peering through small windows; she discovers the luminous details of a liquid self in steady dissolution.
I never met her, but we corresponded for a time late in her life (in addition to short stories, she wrote warm and enthusiastic personal letters); I hold dear the words she shared with me about my own writing, words she wrote me when she lived with her son in Los Angeles and when I was first learning to write, like her, from personal insight and experience. She willingly examined herself by the semi-fictional nature of what she wrote, so that without any religious fervour her work swells with spirit: a spirit of a secular order that is gentle but also ruthlessly self-apprehensive. “The only reason I have lived so long is that I let go of my past,” she wrote in a late story, “Homing,” after surviving her addictions. “Shut the door on grief on regret on remorse.”
A sense of wonder enlivens Berlin’s writing. A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories (2015), published last year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and edited by fiction writer Stephen Emerson, draws attention not only to the full and complex movements of Lucia Berlin’s personal life but also to a carefully crafted balance of feeling and acknowledgment of the many contradictory impulses an individual may possess. Her warm and deliberate style refuses nostalgia; she exerts no longing for what she has missed, what could have been. Instead, writing becomes a record of her perceptive claims to experience, though experience is never fetishized as in Bukowski. The evidence of her life instead provides a base material on which to realize human complexities much larger than anyone’s individual self. Berlin’s admiration for Chekhov’s “diversity” and “range,” as she wrote in one letter, applies to her own work: both writers seek joy in suffering, a sustained commitment to the wonder of living even, or especially, at unbearable extremes.
“Lucia Berlin is always listening, hearing,” Lydia Davis writes in the book’s foreword. “Her sensitivity to the sounds of the language is always there.” Berlin’s company mostly included poets and musicians, and in her writing you hear the electric buzz and crackle that so impresses Davis. Emerson brings attention also to the inward order of Berlin’s collection, aligning each story so that different pieces of the life are sounded through the varied architectures of her narratives. The “intense, momentary, and unforgettable” quality of her writing, as one reviewer remarked, has drawn new admirers. After a lifetime of obscurity, her work is now discussed in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and other popular magazines, and A Manual for Cleaning Women has been translated into several European languages; it is currently a bestseller in Spain, Portugal, Argentina, and elsewhere.
It’s no wonder that Berlin would become an international publishing sensation, a recognized master of the short story who is compared with Grace Paley, Alice Munro, and Raymond Carver. The breadth of her work, while focusing on personal memory and childhood, family, addiction, and sexual desire, pushes beyond what is personally felt to encounter a larger “structure of feeling,” a term the cultural critic Raymond Williams used to describe the lived experience of the quality of life at a particular time and place. Certainly, Berlin’s work can be read according to the dull, sociological prescriptions of current issue-driven discourse: yes, she was abused; yes, her work describes the hard conditions of prisoners, labourers, drunks, and addicts. She exerts special concern for the neglect of children and acknowledges the gendered dominion of men over women at mid-century. But the art of Berlin’s writing remains firmly within the particular terms of her characters’ lives; she does not use them as tools to signify oppression but as figures through which to explore particular worlds and environments where her body of feeling finds levity in the self-clarifying integrity of writing.
Lucia Berlin was born in Alaska in 1936. Her father worked in the mining industry, and he brought his young family to mining camps in Idaho, Kentucky, and Montana before the Second World War. Many of Berlin’s stories draw on a peripatetic childhood in the outdoors under bright skies and cold stars with the animal smells of the seasons. In 1941, she moved to El Paso, Texas, when her father enlisted to fight in the war. “Dr. H. A. Moynihan” illustrates with cold despair and macabre humour a child’s life in the West with her mother’s family, giving special emphasis to the patriarch, a dentist who used the child to help replace his own teeth with a false set. “Everybody hated Grandpa but Mamie, and me, I guess,” she writes.
Every night he got drunk and mean. He was cruel and bigoted and proud. He had shot my uncle John’s eye out during a quarrel and had shamed and humiliated my mother all her life. She wouldn’t speak to him, wouldn’t even get near him because he was so filthy, slopping food and spitting, leaving wet cigarettes everywhere. Plaster from teeth molds covered him with white specks, like he was a painter or a statue.
Uncle John appears later on in a story of brutal familial pain and self-searching called “Silence.” “He was handsome,” Berlin writes, “dark like Grandpa, with only one blue eye since Grandpa shot out the other one. His glass eye was green.” Uncle John, who “wore a cowboy hat and boots and was like a brave movie cowboy part of the time, at others just a pitiful crying bum,” serves as a protective figure for the story’s protagonist, who is sexually violated by her grandfather. The young girl of the story is so brutalized by her family she stops speaking for an extended period, even withholding her own dazed loathing of the abuse of her younger sister. But Uncle John chastises her reticence: “Silence can be wicked,” he says, “plumb wicked.” The story ends in terror when the protective uncle, drunk, runs his truck over a boy and his dog. “The truck thumped, shuddered high up and then thumped down. . . . I looked out the back window. A little boy was standing in the street, his arm bleeding. A collie was lying next to him, really bloody, trying to get up.” Years later, Uncle John is sober when the main character visits him in Los Angeles. “We talked about life, told jokes,” Berlin writes. “Neither of us mentioned El Paso. 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.”
After the war, Berlin’s father moved the family to Santiago, Chile, where, according to Emerson, she “attended cotillions and balls . . . finished school, and served as the default hostess of her father’s society gatherings. Most evenings, her mother retired early with a bottle.” Several stories address this period in the young Berlin’s life, though more frequently the coddling debutante atmosphere of wealth and privilege haunt the edges of other narratives, providing contrasts to failed marriages, love affairs, and frequent visits to detox clinics. The disparity of regional peculiarities and financial circumstances, of language and cultural elocution, increased Berlin’s sense of her own striking difference from others; her stories often move between tensions of self-perception and self-projection. “Solitude is an Anglo-Saxon concept,” she writes in “Fool to Cry,” a story about a year she spent in Mexico City with her dying sister, whose children would lie next to her in bed or bring her moist rags to relieve her suffering. Such details help us understand how love is expressed or withheld according to a certain kind of ingrained stance toward the world. The physical closeness of her sister’s family contrasts with the maternal figure in “Mama.” “She hated the word love,” observes Sally, the dying sister. “She said it the way people say the word slut.”
“Love makes you miserable,” our mama said. “You soak your pillow crying yourself to sleep, you steam up phone booths with your tears, your sobs make the dog holler, you smoke two cigarettes at once.”
“Did Daddy make you miserable?” I asked her.
“Who, him? He couldn’t make anybody miserable.”
To comfort Sally as she nears death, the narrator recalls stories of their mother, “like telling fairy tales,” she says. “Most of all I told Sally stories about how our mother once was. Before she drank, before she harmed us. Once upon a time.”
That “Once upon a time” establishes a mood of peace, of wonder; sympathetic stories of Mama ward off the realities of death momentarily. Mama is a young woman sailing with her new husband toward new adventures in the north. “Alaska was as wonderful as she had dreamed. They went in ski-planes into the wilderness and landed on frozen lakes, skied in the silence and saw elk and polar bears and wolves.” The story within a story, two sisters weaving a narrative through their shared pain, brings us as readers close to an intimacy that is razor-thin, somehow always just ready to spill over the boundaries of joy and grief. “When the war came,” observes the narrator, “you were born and we went to live in Texas.”
“It was terrible for me, with Mama, and with Grandpa. Or alone, most of the time. I got in trouble at school, ran away from one school, was expelled from two others. Once I didn’t speak for six months. Mama called me the Bad Seed. All her rage came down on me. It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized she and Grandpa probably didn’t even remember what they did. God sends drunks blackouts because if they knew what they had done they would surely die of shame.”
Berlin’s stories progress with brief glimpses into her life and then, as in this story, cohere with gentleness and ferocity both. Sally weeps for her mother. “‘Pobrecita. Pobrecita,’ she says. ‘If only I could have been able to speak to her. If I had let her know how much I loved her.’” By stark contrast, the narrator ends the story abruptly in a single, brief sentence of unforgiving pain: “Me . . . I have no mercy.”
In a later story, Berlin looks back on her life to ask, What if? What if one could return to some pivotal moment, an event or crisis, and change it? It is the kind of question that requires reflection on our feelings toward fate and chance, order or chaos, maybe both. “What else have I missed?” she asks. “How many times in my life have I been, so to speak, on the back porch, not the front porch? What would have been said to me that I failed to hear? What love might there have been that I didn’t feel?” Such poignant seeking to establish self-clarity brings fate and faith into close proximity, a faith in decision, in action, risk. How does the past return to haunt or vary one’s life now? We are aerated by peril and prospect, steadied into a course of living, Berlin might say, that is all our own. “Maybe this is not so dangerous a thing to do, to let the past in with the preface ‘What if ?’” she writes.
What if I had spoken with Paul before he left? What if I had asked for help? What if I had married H? Sitting here, looking out the window toward the tree where now there are no branches or crows, the answers to each “what if ” are strangely reassuring. They could not have happened, this what if, that what if. Everything good or bad that has occurred in my life has been predictable and inevitable, especially the choices and actions that have made sure I am now utterly alone.
A few years before Berlin’s death, the poet Kenward Elmslie initiated a video project called Irons in the Fire. It was made available online recently and one of the portions focuses on Berlin. She breathes with the aid of an oxygen tank due to a lifelong condition of double scoliosis; the pain was severe and troubled her respiration by now. Her eyes, bright blue, ash on the screen. A dignified southern drawl narrates again the particular stakes she envisioned for herself as a writer: “I’ve led so many different lives because I lived so many places and knew so many different kinds of people that I’ve taken more risks,” she says. “I didn’t choose a steady path. In fact, I resisted the steady paths always. But the main continuity is that always I was of the outside.” To find continuity as an outsider, to receive stamina and stability in roles most people would refuse, testifies to the brave ethical stances of her stories. Many artists have identified with the outside, but for Berlin, the outside is a figure of dwelling, a spiritually determined landing that only coheres when telling the terms of one’s existence. “I’m always looking,” she says, “looking for home.”
Dale Smith is the author of Slow Poetry in America (Cuneiform, 2014) and Poets Beyond the Barricade: Rhetoric, Citizenship, and Dissent after 1960 (University of Alabama Press, 2012); recent essays have appeared in the Boston Review and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He teaches literature at Ryerson University, Toronto.