Meeting Monthly at the Simi Valley Public Library

November 9, 2016 A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin

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New York Times Review

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Lucia Berlin in 1963. Credit Buddy Berlin/Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin LP

“In order to write about life, first you must live it.” That’s often attributed to Hemingway, and he would have applauded Lucia Berlin, who made fiction from her life and had a surplus of raw material. Born in Alaska in 1936 to a father who was a mining engineer, Ms. Berlin lived all over the American West and in Chile, New York City and Mexico. She survived childhood abuse and adult alcoholism, an addiction that sent her, in her words, to “jails, hospitals, psych wards.” She hung out with poets and musicians (marrying two jazz players). By her early 30s, she had been divorced three times and had four sons. She worked as a house cleaner, a substitute teacher and a hospital clerk. She put much of her roving, rowdy life onto the page in vivid stories that garnered the respect of a modest audience and now could be on the verge of making her posthumously famous.

“A Manual for Cleaning Women,” which Farrar, Straus & Giroux will publish on Tuesday, collects 43 stories, a bit more than half of Ms. Berlin’s output. (She died in 2004, on her 68th birthday.)

Ms. Berlin’s narrators and many of their experiences are transparently autobiographical. The stories, set in El Paso, Albuquerque and other locales familiar to Ms. Berlin, feature children in back braces (she had scoliosis starting at 10), stark reports from detox wards, arguments in laundromats and distracted observations in hospitals. (“My Jockey” starts, “I like working in Emergency — you meet men there, anyway.”)

The re-emergence of Ms. Berlin’s work a little over a decade after her death feels less like an archaeological discovery than a spotlight belatedly sweeping onto a contemporary. Her stories speak in a voice at once direct and off-kilter, sincere and wry. They are singular, but also immediately accessible to anyone raised on the comic searching of Lorrie Moore or the offbeat irony of George Saunders.

The novelist and short story writer Elizabeth McCracken said, “They kind of remind me of Denis Johnson’s ‘Jesus’ Son,’ which is the most beloved book of stories I know from the past 20 years among writers.”

So was Ms. Berlin a writers’ writer, her work eagerly passed among adoring fellow practitioners but no further? Not quite. Ms. McCracken had never heard of her before receiving an advance copy of “A Manual for Cleaning Women.” She wasn’t alone.

“It’s been a frustration for me for 30, 40 years,” Lydia Davis, who wrote the foreword for the new book, said of her efforts to broaden Ms. Berlin’s readership. “Right up to now, I mention her name and people don’t know who she is.”

The poet August Kleinzahler met Ms. Berlin in California in the mid-1990s. “I’d been telling people in vain since at least the mid-’80s that she’s one of the best writers in America,” he said. The Western backdrop of most of the stories, Mr. Kleinzahler said, and their raw tone and demotic style, may have kept them from storming certain publishing enclaves. “I think it would be easy for readers who are accustomed to The New Yorker story to say, ‘Oh, this is unpolished writing,’ ” he said.

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The writer Lucia Berlin in 1962. Her fiction, based on her life, has remained largely unknown. Credit Buddy Berlin/Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin LP

Ms. Berlin’s career began auspiciously. At 24, she published her first story in The Noble Savage, a literary magazine founded by Saul Bellow and others. But she spent nearly two decades not writing while raising her four sons alone and battling the bottle. When she started producing fiction again, in the late 1970s (a decade before she got sober), she managed to find the sparkle in life on the margins without simply transforming it into black comedy.

In the title story, she writes: “Some lady at a bridge party somewhere started the rumor that to test the honesty of a cleaning woman you leave little rosebud ashtrays around with loose change in them, here and there. My solution to this is to always add a few pennies, even a dime.” And later: “All I really steal is sleeping pills, saving for a rainy day.”

Through the 1980s, Ms. Berlin’s stories were published by very small presses. In the 1990s, three books of new and selected stories were released by Black Sparrow Press, a midsize independent publisher. In 2013, the writers Stephen Emerson, Barry Gifford and Michael Wolfe, friends and admirers of Ms. Berlin, put together a manuscript of stories in hopes of having it accepted by a high-profile New York publisher. Emily Bell, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, saw potential in reissuing the work.

“There are sentences that just make me bark with laughter,” Ms. McCracken said of the stories. “Her work is a strange combination of mercilessness and warmth. There isn’t that coldness that sometimes goes along with writing about addiction and unhappiness. The characters seem fully human and not reduced to their circumstances.”

Ms. Berlin spoke often of her love for Chekhov and his compassion for people, and she once wrote to Mr. Kleinzahler about her connection to Raymond Carver: “I wrote like him before I ever read him. Our ‘styles’ came from our (similar in a way) backgrounds. Don’t show your feelings. Don’t cry. Don’t let anyone know you … more than exquisite control blahblahblah.”

Ms. Berlin wrote about difficult experiences with a mixture of startlingly plain talk and gallows humor. In another letter to Mr. Kleinzahler, she revisited her childhood: “O.K., so here I am in these terrifying schools and my daddy is in the war, my mother, grandpa and uncle drunk, my mother and grandpa abusing me, sexually and physically (not at the same time, they weren’t sickos or anything).”

If the new collection creates a big enough cult of readers, a book of Ms. Berlin’s correspondence may not be far behind. Mr. Kleinzahler and Ms. Davis each developed a close but almost exclusively epistolary friendship with Ms. Berlin. “She was as lively and unpredictable in her letters, and unfiltered, as she is in many of the stories,” said Mr. Kleinzahler, who published fragments of the letters in The London Review of Books in 2005.

“For those of us who did know her, this whole thing is emotionally fraught,” Ms. Davis said of the possibility of Ms. Berlin’s increased renown. “This kind of success isn’t something she would have put at the top of her list, but it would be nice if she were here to see it.”

Mr. Emerson said: “Even though she did have doubts, second thoughts, anxiety about her stories, especially right after composing or after publication, I do think she knew how good she was. At least some of the time.”

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