‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ by Lucia Berlin (2015) – 399 pages
During her lifetime Lucia Berlin wrote 76 stories of which 43 of them were selected for ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’. She lived for exactly 68 years, passing away on her birthday in 2004. She was married three times and had four children. As a child she lived in mining camps in Idaho, Montana, Arizona, and Chile. As an adult she lived in New Mexico, Mexico, California, Colorado, and Wyoming. To support herself and her family, she taught creative writing, worked as a cleaning woman, as a ward clerk in emergency rooms and as a telephone switchboard operator, etc. She was plagued with health problems including double scoliosis which required her to carry an oxygen tank for many of her last years. She had severe bouts with alcoholism which she was able to conquer in middle age. Earlier she had spent time in detox centers.
I think that it is pretty safe to say that this is not your typical biography of a fiction writer.
“God sends drunks blackouts because if they knew what they had done they would surely die of shame.” – “Mama”
Lucia Berlin tells her stories by indirection. She allows her characters to do things that are not totally scripted. Compared to hers, other people’s stories are too tightly plotted. She allows her characters the freedom to do and say surprising things. Her characters’ behavior is not pre-ordained. At first this freedom of behavior is a little disorienting to the reader. Just about anything can happen in one of Berlin’s stories at any time. These are glimpses of shapeless, formless, unfiltered reality.
“I tried to hide when Grandpa was drunk because he would catch me and rock me. He was doing it once in the big rocker, holding me tight, the chair bouncing off the ground inches from the red-hot stove, his thing jabbing, jabbing my behind. He was singing ‘Old Tin Pan with the Hole in the Bottom’. Loud. Panting and grunting. Only a few feet away Mamie sat, reading the Bible while I screamed, “Mamie! Help me!” Uncle John showed up, drunk and dusty. He grabbed me away from Grandpa, pulled the old man up by his shirt. He said he’d kill him with his bare hands next time. Then he slammed shut Mamie’s Bible.” – “Silence”
At first I thought these stories were exceptionally rough, crude, and unpolished to the point where they were difficult to read. My thanks to JacquiWine for convincing me to give ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ one more chance.
In Berlin’s story “The Step”, a bunch of alcoholics in their identical blue pajamas gather around a TV screen at a detox center to watch a fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Wilfred Benitez.
In “Carmen”, a pregnant woman takes a taxicab to a Mexican slum to complete a drug deal for her addict boyfriend.
“That’s the lousy thing about drugs, I thought. They work.” – “Carmen”
Whether the drug is cocaine, OxyContin, heroin, or even alcohol, I suppose this is true.
Even in the most daring unconventional fiction there are limits as to what can happen. Events are limited by the writer’s imagination. However in unfiltered reality anything can happen. Perhaps things occurred in your classroom or neighborhood that were so shocking or disgusting that you won’t even remember them. These are the kind of things that happen in Lucia Berlin’s stories.