Connect the Sots

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories BY Lucia Berlin. edited by Stephen Emerson, Lydia Davis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 432 pages. $26.

The cover of A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

Lucia Berlin was born November 12, 1936, and she died on November 12 sixty-eight years later, which suggests a tidiness to her time on this earth that her time on this earth certainly did not exhibit. She lived in Alaska, Chile, Mexico, and the American Southwest, loved her sister and loathed her mother, had severe scoliosis and a very large drinking problem. She was forever getting married to cads or addicts and had four sons whom she pretty much raised herself, supporting them through a series of crummy jobs—switchboard operator, ER attendant, cleaning woman. From the ’70s through the ’90s, she published seventy-six short stories in six collections, not a single one of which was appropriately lionized at the time.

Of course, neglect happens within the fickle chambers of the literary politburo, but discovery time has come around at last for Berlin, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s publication of forty-three stories under the title A Manual for Cleaning Women. This is, unfortunately, not a terrific title—too arch, and a puzzling prompt for a reader unfamiliar with the style and delights of Berlin’s tough, joyous, and slantwise sensibilities. Lydia Davis, in her excellent foreword, speaks of the “buzz and crackle” of Berlin’s stories, her companionable and engaging voice, her clarity and unpredictability. Davis finds her writing “exhilarating.” And it is. It’s swift and real. She is never mannered, never false or corrupt. She serves up perfect slices of life’s pie on clean cracked plates.

The stories range from the very short—a fifteen-line hymn to macadam (of all things), and a stunning one-page work of flash fiction about an injured jockey in the ER—to fully realized, heart-rattling pieces like “Mijito,” “So Long,” “Tiger Bites,” and “Grief.” Each one has its lightning flashes and glorious peculiarities. In “Temps Perdu,” a lowly hospital-ward clerk answers a patient’s bell and has a vision when she gazes into the eyes of a Mr. Brugger, an old stroke-addled diabetic with a full colostomy bag:

I . . . smiled into his eyes. My God, the shock that hit me, like falling on a bicycle bar, a Vinteuil sonata right there on Four East. Little beady black eyes laughing from epicanthic gray-white folds. Eyes just past Buddha eyes . . . laughing into mine . . . I was engulfed with the memory of love, no with love itself. Mr. Brugger felt this no doubt, since now he rings his ever-loving bell all night long.

Berlin has been compared to Raymond Carver (it must be her fondness for scenes in Laundromats); Isaac Babel (the occasional violence and stoicism); and Richard Yates (the seemingly effortless narration). But why compare? Enjoy her for her inimitable self.

Her manner is brisk, hilarious, forgiving. “Did Daddy make you miserable?” a character asks her mother, who responds: “Who, him? He couldn’t make anybody miserable.” In “Phantom Pain,” the narrator observes: “I’ve never understood how so many barely literate people read the Bible so much. It’s hard.” The stories about drinking and its ever-ongoing aftermath are horrid and true, almost breathless in their attentive amazement. In “502,” the narrator assesses the conveniences and drawbacks of different cities. In Boulder, “the liquor stores are gigantic Target-size nightmares. You could die from DTs just trying to find the Jim Beam aisle.” Even sober there are occasionally worries. One character has a tendency to see police cars even when they aren’t there. “Whenever I looked in the rearview mirror I’d go ‘Oh no,’ but it was just the ski racks everybody has on their cars.”

To alcoholics, everything is a fearsome sign. In “Step,” a group in detox is watching a televised fight, rooting for a pretty boy named Benitez. He is courageous but doomed. The match wears on, the group falls silent. They’re not asking him to win anymore, just to stay in the fight. In the fifteenth round he’s still standing but then . . . “Benitez’s right knee touched the canvas. Briefly, like a Catholic leaving a pew. The slightest deference that meant the fight was over; he had lost. Carlotta whispered, ‘God, please help me.’”

Berlin knows her alcoholics. And she knows her bad boys: “Jesse had already dropped out of school, already had a probation officer . . . but Joel, the baby, adored him, his boots, his guitar, his pellet gun.” She knows the toll that lies and giving comfort demand; she knows why we end up where we end up: “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.” She knows the greed of love and the shapes of devotion. The little masterpiece “Phantom Pain” begins with an account of an old miner in an isolated Montana cabin—his only companions a dog and some goats. “I hadn’t gone up with my father the first trip that spring, when he found the old man dead. The goats and the dog too, all in his bed. ‘When I get cold I just pull me up another goat,’ he used to say.”

Smack in the middle of the ’70s, a Harper’s editor, Pat Rotter, put together an anthology of women’s fiction, Bitches & Sad Ladies. It was an OK venture, sort of pushy, sort of fun (one writer included had the fabulous name of “M. Pabst Battin”), but Lucia Berlin was not among the contributors to this collection of stories “by and about women.” It’s understandable. She was neither bitchy nor sad. She was neither feminist nor fantasist nor fabulist. She was educated and experienced, and had a somewhat hip and nomadic lifestyle, but few literary connections until late in her life. She wrote for the joy and the need of it, and because of this her style knew few constraints. Her stories are unusual in structure and intent yet seem to have found the most natural way of being told, causing the reader to often think, If ever there were something a story should be, this is it! She was a lover and a fatalist. She struggled, she praised, she lived keenly, and she died. And she wrote, thank God.

Joy Williams is the author of The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories (Knopf, 2015).