Out of the Dark: A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

by Kelly Luce

I was on a midnight walk on the deserted University of the South campus in late July; the only light for miles came from the blue moon. My friend and I turned a corner and heard — what? A man. He was singing, bellowing, somewhere on his vast, unlit lawn. In the middle of the road, we froze and listened. The cicadas paused. The sound was bare, complex, and thrilling. Because it was unexpected, because it was beautiful, it stopped us in our tracks. Whether the guy was practicing for church choir or just clearing out cobwebs, I don’t know. But I do remember feeling like the universe had it wrong — us, struck dumb in the road, bathed in light, the singer in the dark.

But I was going to tell you about Lucia Berlin. I was going to tell you about her new collected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women. This author, this book, came to me like the unseen man singing his heart out to god knows who or what. It was surprising, absolutely alluring. Startling. Weirdly holy. And I’m not the only one. The book is getting lots of press — as it should. But why now? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself; Lucia Berlin has been publishing astonishingly good stories since the 60s. Suddenly it feels like we want to claim her, but who is she?

Lucia Berlin wrote largely from life, which, over 68 years, included enough heartache, adventure, physical pain, and joy for a number of lifetimes. The 43 stories that comprise A Manual range from tiny, flash-like pieces (“Macadam,” “My Jockey”) to longer, more traditional narratives. Characters recur; the widow who has an affair with a diver in “Toda Luna, Todo Año” returns to the same beach later with her younger sister.

The unfathomable uniqueness of Berlin’s style — her voice, in particular — is evident in the adjectives being thrown around. Recent pieces on Berlin and reviews of A Manual for Cleaning Women have described her work as joyful, careworn, dark, bright, funny, sad, vivid, droll, sincere, bawdy, offbeat, fierce, gritty, unfailingly feminine, wickedly wise, emotionally raw, and (my favorite) spiky.

And as we fumble with adjectives for an author who’s unlike anyone else, so too do we fumble with comparisons. The inevitable Carver, Chekov, Richard Yates come to mind. Grace Paley, if they’re looking for a woman. Lorrie Moore. Yes, Lucia Berlin is female and writes with dry wit, but where Moore is self-consciously clever, Berlin is a bit more understated. She is not concerned with punch lines. She has a Dybekian obsession with grace in tough places that is anything but clever, or — god forbid — quirky. When I read these stories, I was reminded of Joy Williams and Barry Hannah, but even more so, of authors like Beth Nugent, Stephanie Vaughn, Amanda Davis — three more tragically underappreciated women whose short stories were spiky before it was cool. But Lucia Berlin isn’t truly similar to anything I’ve read before.

“You will listen to me if I have to force you, her stories growl,” wrote Ruth Franklin in the New York Times book review. I disagree. For one thing, if this were true, we’d have all heard of Lucia Berlin long ago. Her work would be taught. The truth is, there is nothing solicitous or menacing about Lucia Berlin’s writing. What’s there is life, and not always the pretty parts; what’s there is blue collar work, abortion clinics, emergency rooms, winos, bus stops, detox wards, dysfunctional family gatherings, suicides, widows, underwater sex, a man who makes his granddaughter pull out all his teeth. There is no growling, either as defensive posture or threat; instead, what we get is the wryness that comes from humility, from a simultaneous love for, and disgust at, oneself. Berlin’s was an intellect constantly juggling all of this, and it seems she could process this cognitive chaos through writing. Granted, not every story in the collection is a masterpiece. A few do end abruptly, leaving the reader feeling unfulfilled. Some stories become melodramatic or contain twists and turns that feel forced. But that’s a small handful out of forty-three. And even in that handful are moments of linguistic delight, phrases so finely turned you copy them into a notebook.

But really, who knows why Berlin wasn’t more popular in her lifetime. Maybe it has to do with her gender. Maybe it’s because she was a woman writing largely about women, from the perspective of women, and also about real sadness — not cute pat-her-on-the-head romantic problems and family matters. The women in her stories work jobs that roughen the hands and tax the knees; they work jobs that cause a lifetime of lower back pain. Who wants to read about that? And, to make matters worse, she was funny. “I clean their coke mirror with Windex,” the narrator deadpans in the title story. But women aren’t supposed to be funny! They’re allowed to be quirky. They can be Lucille Ball. Now, a woman delivering stinging observational humor — that’s threatening. There’s your growl.

This was a brilliant woman. Her work transcends funny and shows us the absurd. She doesn’t let her characters hide behind artifice or sensationalism or substances, as much as they might like to. Reading these stories, you get the sense that this is what she wanted for herself: to let go of the bullshit. As a result, the transformation she provides is visceral and startling: We get the sense that Berlin, writing these stories, was often as surprised as you at where they wind up. In the space of a page and a half, an injured jockey in the ER morphs from man to Aztec god to fairy tale prince to human infant to colt — perhaps the horse he fell from that led to his presence in the ER in the first place. It’s a seemingly effortless shift that happens with the speed and subconscious chaos of poetry. And yet we are grounded in reality — buttons, laces, manure and sweat, a gurney, an X-ray order — the entire time. One foot in an ER room we can smell, one in the placeless swirl of consciousness. Everything is imbued with a visceral sense of caring.

Ultimately, it’s her care that wins us over. It’s the reason why we read. It’s why we sing in the dark and why we stop to listen. Regardless of why Lucia Berlin has been overlooked all these years, we can rest knowing that the mistake has been corrected.

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories

by Lucia Berlin


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