A MANUAL FOR CLEANING WOMEN: Selected Stories, by Lucia Berlin, edited by Stephen Emerson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 403 pp., $26.
The vivacity, humor, sorrow, pragmatism and sheer literary star power that fill the 43 stories collected in "A Manual For Cleaning Women" hit with such immediacy and vigor that it seems unbelievable that their author, Lucia Berlin, died in 2004, at the age of 68, before most of us ever knew about her. How a writer with this much appeal slipped under the radar is unfathomable, though sexism may be involved. Anyway, thank heavens it's over. Anyone who loves the stories of Grace Paley and Lorrie Moore will find another master of the form here -- and will feel immense gratitude to the supporters who brought us this collection, selected from earlier small-press editions of her work.
One of those was the writer Lydia Davis, who explains in a foreword that she has been a fan for more than 30 years. She has many interesting things to point out about Berlin's writing, though they mean more after you read the book than before. "Although people talk, as though it were a new thing, about the form of fiction known in France as auto-fiction ('self-fiction')," she writes, "the narration of one's own life, lifted almost unchanged from the reality, selected and judiciously, artfully told, Lucia Berlin has been doing this . . . [since] the 1960s."
And so, with a series of narrators named Lucia, Lu, Lucille, LB, Carlotta, Dolores and Ms. Bevins, many facets of a fascinating biography come into focus. Berlin's childhood in Western mining towns, El Paso, Texas, and Santiago, Chile; her years on the West Coast as an alcoholic single mother of four boys; her series of jobs as a teacher, nurse, cleaning lady, switchboard operator; her final, peaceful years in Boulder. There's a good bio at the end of the book, and images of her Elizabeth Taylor-esque beauty at luciaberlin.com. Though she had lifelong scoliosis so serious it eventually punctured her lung, it makes very slight appearance in the stories.
Often a single experience, like the period Berlin spent caring for her dying younger sister in Mexico, is told in several different ways. In "Grief," we see the sisters on the occasion of their reunion after years of alienation through the eyes of other vacationers observing and discussing them at a Zihuatanejo resort. In "Fool to Cry," chemo has begun and the dying sister's house is filled with children, ex-husbands and lovers. "Solitude is an Anglo-Saxon concept," writes Berlin. "In Mexico City, if you're the only person on a bus and someone gets on they'll not only come next to you, they will lean against you."
A third story about the death is called "Panteon de Dolores" for a Mexican cemetery -- in Mexico, Berlin, points out, graveyards aren't called "Serene Valley" or "Heavenly Rest," but "Pantheon of Pain" -- and in "So Long," the sister's death is one of many topics of discussion with the narrator's ex-husband. "So what is marriage anyway?" she muses. "I never figured it out. And now it is death I don't understand."
Finally, in "Wait a Minute," "it has been seven years since you died." This story is almost a personal essay, full of reflection and wisdom: "When someone has a terminal disease, the soothing churn of time is shattered. Too fast, no time, I love you, have to finish this, tell him that. Wait a minute! I want to explain."
Another thread through the stories is Berlin's alcoholism, which ended when she got sober at 51. "Unmanageable," "Her First Detox" and "502" are devoted entirely to addiction's terrors and absurdities, but in other stories it comes up only in a single lacerating line. She was not the only drinker in her family: In "Tiger Bites," a story set at a family reunion in Texas and at an abortion clinic in Mexico, the narrator is welcomed to town by her beauty-queen cousin, Bella Lynn, with the news, "your mama and my mama started drinking right off the bat. Mama went up on the garage roof and won't come down. Your mother slit her wrists."
There are so many stories worth discussing here -- one must at least mention the tragic "Mijito," about a homeless, undocumented Mexican teenage mother -- but you might as well just go get the book and start reading them for yourself. The fact is I just loved it.