In 2015, a hefty, salmon-colored volume of stories by a writer who had died unknown 11 years earlier appeared and became a sensation. "A Manual for Cleaning Women" by Lucia Berlin was read with astonishment by readers such as myself. How had we completely missed the eight small-press books this virtuoso short-story writer had published during her lifetime? The collection was chosen as one of the 10 best books of the year by this newspaper, The New York Times and others, and went on to be published and win accolades in 28 countries.
Now there are two slimmer volumes to put beside it on the shelf: "Evening in Paradise" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 244 pp., $26), another collection of stories, and "Welcome Home" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 162 pp., $25), an unfinished memoir and selected letters. Surmising that the additional books were conceived in response to the success of the first, which contained 43 of the 76 stories Berlin wrote, one has to wonder. Are we scraping the bottom of the barrel, reading less impressive stories and oddments the author had not intended for publication?
The answer is no — with a tiny bit of well, maybe.
Most of the stories in the new collection are as stellar as those in the first, though it trails off a bit at the end. Again, the stories are autobiographical, many with protagonists having names that recall the author's, their settings drawn from the author's biography — growing up in El Paso, Texas, and Santiago, Chile; college and early domestic life in Albuquerque, New Mexico; on to Manhattan; then down to Mexico with her third husband, the musician/drug addict. Mexico is the setting for "Evening in Paradise" and "La Barca de la Ilusión," among my favorites.
The title story is set in Puerto Vallarta during the 1963 shooting of "The Night of the Iguana," conveying the ambience of this transitional period in the history of this once unknown little town through the eyes of Hernán, a hotel bartender. Hernán is pouring drinks for John Huston, Ava Gardner, Richard Burton and Liz Taylor while keeping an eye on Victor, the local drug dealer, who now seems to be purveying cocaine along with marijuana and heroin. Victor reappears in the next story, "La Barca de la Ilusión."
American expats Maya and Buzz are living with their sons on an isolated beach outside Puerto Vallarta. He plays sax at the bars in town; she is absorbed in the domestic rituals of primitive living and the exquisite beauty of the setting. "The datura that bloomed in a profusion of white flowers that hung heavy clumsily until night, when the moonlight or starlight gave the petals an opalescent shimmer of silver and the intoxicating scent wafted everywhere in the house, out to the lagoon." Maya had not known Buzz was a heroin addict when she married him, but now he has kicked the habit and they are living in paradise. Then they run into Victor. Ultimately, Maya deals with him in a way that Lucia Berlin must have been aching to in real life.
Readers of the first book will recognize this marriage; those who go on to "Welcome Home" will find a great many correspondences between the life and the stories, including a memoir version of "La Barca de la Ilusión," with the exact same sentence about the datura flowers.
The first half of "Welcome Home" is a series of autobiographical vignettes from the ungodly number of places the author lived, starting with Juneau, Alaska, and ending somewhere in Chiapas, Mexico. Abundant family photos reaffirm Berlin's Liz Tayloresque beauty. After the last vignette, the editor (apparently her son, Jeff Berlin, who wrote the introduction and acknowledgments) appends an amusing list of catastrophes written sometime in the 1980s titled "The Trouble with All the Houses I've Lived In."
Finding all the connections to the stories in the memoir is fun. The letters, the earliest written at age 11 and most in the author's mid-to-late 20s, offer some of that same pleasure but more powerfully underline the fact that the voice that seems so off-the-cuff and natural in the stories is something she consciously created; the version of her persona and her life that got into the stories is clarified and curated. The ubiquity of "groovy" and "I dig it" and other period slang in the letters, most of them addressed to the poet Ed Dorn and his wife, Helene, is a funny surprise.
If you haven't yet discovered Lucia Berlin, start with "A Manual for Cleaning Women." Then, if you love her as much as I and so many others do, go on to these bonus tracks.