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A Manual for Cleaning Women
By Lucia Berlin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
For a long time, it looked like Lucia Berlin's stories would vanish into obscurity. Her story presents a classic case of life getting in the way. Born in 1938, she wrote fiction as far back as the 1960s, her career trajectory was interrupted both by struggles with alcoholism and the need to work jobs ranging from maid to switchboard operator to physician's assistant to support her family, as a brief romance with a heroin addict left her a single mother. It wasn't until the '80s and '90s that her work became published regularly, and while she found herself a number of notable acolytes - including the great Lydia Davis, who wrote the forward to this book - and won herself a couple prizes (the excellent micro-story "My Jockey," included here, got some attention in the '80s), she never found the same following as contemporaries like Raymond Carver. However, the publication of this collection has already done work to grant her much-deserved visibility; within a few weeks of its publication, it already outsold all her other work combined.
So what is Lucia Berlin like? Well, her stories are excellent taken one at a time, but I wish I'd taken a little more time with this collection than I did. Four hundred pages worth of short stories, most of them gleaned from Berlin's life and featuring a recurring cast of characters that are, if we believe the forward (and why shouldn't we?) fictionalizations of real people she knew, is a little much to take in a few days. Berlin is, don't get me wrong, quite a skillful writer. "My Jockey" is a fine example of her immediacy, her ability to embody a moment in just a few well-chosen words. I've never been a big Carver fan, but she's exactly what I've always heard Carver was in that sense. Lydia Davis is also correct to point out that Berlin has a remarkable ear for dialect, especially that of the American southwest, where she spent most of her life. The stories also tend to come with a sort of punch at the end, a moment where seemingly disparate threads all tie together in a surprising way. My main problem with Berlin is she only seems to have a few modes: stories about her family, stories about the addicts she meets in hospitals, stories about her travels in South America, stories about romances gone south.
Still, she's definitely found and cornered her thing, if you will. I've already talked a little about her immediacy in "My Jockey," and stories like "My First Detox" and "Unmanageable," with the should-be-immortal first sentence "In the deep dark knight of the soul the liquor stores and bars are closed," display it arguably even more. Meanwhile, her sense of humor comes out in pieces like "502," which is shall we say a different type of drunk-driving story, and "Sex Appeal," with surprising doses of slapstick mixed in with a coming-of-age story. The real must-have for is "Good and Bad," though, where Berlin combines her immediacy and remarkable eye for detail with a touching and ultimately sad story about a radical history professor's relationship with her student. Stories like this lend the realism more punch, and ultimately justify the fact that you might have to drag yourself through some samey stories. I guess this would've been better with about a dozen stories cut - most of them are quite short, so the reader would still get a panoramic experience - but Lucia Berlin's still someone worth investigating, and I'm certainly happy she's been saved from obscurity.
Out of 10: 8.8