Review: A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

“Angel’s Laundromat is in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fourth Street. Shabby shops and junkyards, secondhand stores with army cots, boxes of one-socks, 1940 edition of Good Hygiene. Grain stores and motels for lovers and old women with hennaed hair who do their laundry at Angel’s. Teenage Chicana brides go to Angel’s. Towels, pink shortie nighties, bikini underpants that say Thursday. Their husbands wear blue overalls with names in script on the pockets. I like to wait and see the names appear in the mirror vision of the dryers. Tina, Corky, Junior.” (Angel’s Laundromat)

In John Williams’ highly under-appreciated novel Stoner, the story’s eponymous character dies with his hand upon his only published work. This death in mediocrity serves as the inevitable conclusion of an unremarkable life, challenging the reader to consider the true meaning of a person’s place in this bustling world of cross purposes and essential solitude. As with Williams’ hero (or antihero, depending on your perspective), Lucia Berlin died with her hand on the favourite of her short story collections. Unlike William Stoner, however, Lucia Berlin experienced a life of incredible diversity. She lived in Alaska, the US Midwest, Texas, and Santiago, Chile. She worked as a cleaning women, an ER nurse, a creative writing teacher for prisoners, a writer, and an academic. She was also a chronic alcoholic, married three times, and a mother of four sons. Where Berlin struggled to find justified recognition for her work while alive, her short stories have garnered something of a devoted and diverse following since her death. While William Stoner faded into anonymity, remembered only through a dedication from his academic colleagues, Berlin’s work is thus finally able to enjoy the celebration that it so resoundingly deserves.

A Manual for Cleaning Women is a short story collection published in 2015, compiled using Berlin’s best loved and most excellent stories. The stories themselves were authored over decades, documenting Berlin’s life in a type of auto-fiction that leaves readers breathless at the sheer expansiveness of the author’s experiences. The stories carry us through Berlin’s time as a privileged schoolgirl in Santiago, wrestling with the implications of her fortunate position as juxtaposed with the extreme poverty around her. We encounter the author as she describes her work as a cleaning woman, offering advice to others as though writing a set of general instructions. We also return time and again to the multiple faces of death and its consequences. Although typically centred around narrators of different names, the stories all return to Berlin’s own experiences as their immovable compass point. In the story Silence, the narrator confesses: “I exaggerate a lot and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don’t actually ever lie.” This is the perfect characterisation of a series of stories that, while undoubtedly fictionalised in parts, never stray far from the resilience and burning attention to reality that characterised Berlin’s own perception of and interaction with the world.

“Time stops when someone dies. Of course it stops for them, maybe, but for the mourners time runs amok. Death comes too soon. It forgets the tides, the days growing longer and shorter, the moon. It rips up the calendar. You aren’t at your desk or on the subway or fixing dinner for the children. You’re reading People in a surgery waiting room, or shivering outside on a balcony smoking all night long. You stare into space, sitting in your childhood bedroom with the globe on the desk. Persia, the Belgian Congo. The bad part is that when you return to your ordinary life all the routines, the marks of the day, seem like senseless lies. All is suspect, a trick to lull us, rock us back into the placid relentlessness of time.” (Wait a Minute)

For a story collection that touches so often on death and the violence of addiction, it is Berlin’s incredible appetite for life that truly characterises A Manual for Cleaning Women. The connections wrought by alcoholism – as in the story Strays and its depiction of Berlin’s time in a detox facility – are a central theme of the stories brought together here and serve as some of the collection’s most poignantly uplifting moments. In 502, the narrator’s bond with the local drunks – who pass their days sleeping and drinking in an old Chevrolet outside of a 7-Eleven – lends an air of mutual understanding and camaraderie to the isolation imposed by alcoholism. To suggest that Berlin is working to glamourise or otherwise undermine the severity of addiction, however, is to miss the melancholic inevitability that operates in parallel to the vivacity with which the author characterises her stories. In Unmanageable, for instance, Berlin describes an early morning attempt to reach the liquor store before her sons wake up. The urgent determination to avoid alcohol withdrawal and her son’s disappointed realisation that his mother has managed to somehow get hold of a drink – ” ‘How in the hell did you get a drink?’ He pushed past her and poured himself some cereal. Thirteen. He was taller than she.” – work in parallel to the rest of the collection to create a fully realised picture of the experiences that Berlin describes.

Indeed, reading A Manual for Cleaning Women feels very much like studying a painting from different angles. As with her battle with alcoholism, the collection also offers multiple accounts of a sister’s battle with terminal cancer. Mama and Wait a Minute describe the painful intimacies of death and dying, albeit not without levity – as when the narrator’s dying sister cries “I’ll never see donkeys again!” Berlin’s stories are replete with a grave sensitivity, almost rendered unnoticeable through the vivacity with which she takes on the heaviest subjects. This balance undoubtedly emerges from a careful attention paid to emotional subtleties and small details, in both Berlin’s experience of the events and the way in which she fictionalises them. Those moments of death are, after all, rarely passed without some acknowledgement of the comedy of our own position as temporary beings – wandering from place to place and person to person, with little regard for the small details. There is a strange humour in death, as there is in all of the moments to which Berlin gives her attention.

“I don’t know why I even brought this up. Magpies flash now blue, green against the snow. They have a similar bossy shriek. Of course I could get a book or call somebody and find out about the nesting habits of crows. But what bothers me is that I only accidentally noticed them. What else have I missed? How many times in my life have I been, so to speak, on the back porch, not the front porch? What would have been said to me that I failed to hear? What love might there have been that I didn’t feel?” (Homing)

Reading A Manual for Cleaning Women is like receiving an invite to participate in life’s most unseen moments. That Berlin takes pains to deal in the realities typically avoided by mainstream fiction – and does so with such remarkable skill – is a testament to the author’s stylistic authority. Not a word of this collection is wasted. Dwelling in the every day, Berlin asks us to involve ourselves in the experiences that she documents with such acute attention to the emotional tug-of-war often involved. In a number of places, the narrator calls to us directly – “Wait. Let me explain…” opens Stars and Saints. In the titular story, A Manual For Cleaning Women, the narrator pauses to add this instruction:

“(Cleaning women: As for cats…never make friends with cats, don’t let them play with the mop, the rags. The ladies will get jealous. Never, however, knock cats off of chairs. On the other hand, always make friends with dogs, spend five or ten minutes scratching Cherokee or Smiley when you first arrive. Remember to close the toilet seats. Furry, jowly drips.)”

It is an incredibly effective manoeuvre and one that invites a profound level of engagement with Berlin’s stories. A Manual for Cleaning Women – the story – is certainly the most exhibitive of Berlin’s style and skill. Documenting each of the narrator’s jobs as she journeys via successive bus routes, the story quite literally embodies its title. As the narrator pauses to offer suggestions to the reader, this world and its expectations – in all of their ridiculous intensity and presumption – are revealed to us. At all times, the reader feels the privilege of witnessing the world through this author’s eyes.

While it is in these seemingly mundane and most painful parts of reality that Berlin most successfully dwells, her stories never lose their momentum. Even where passing time in the quiet moments of illness or away from the frantic bustle of the ER rooms that she depicts so well, Berlin never relinquishes the pace or the sense that things are always happening. Her punchy prose – often characterised by a rhythm that effortlessly establishes the story’s energy – equips Berlin to carry events forward, whilst simultaneously pausing to notice the small details that afford the collection its depth. In the opening story, Angel’s Laundromat, this attention to minute detail is particularly indicative of Berlin’s overarching intimation of life’s beauty and humour:

“I go to Angel’s. I’m not sure why, it’s not just the Indians. It’s across town from me. Only a block away is the Campus, air-conditioned, soft rock on the Muzak. New Yorker, Ms., and Cosmopolitan. Wives of graduate assistants go there and buy their kids Zero bars and Cokes. The Campus laundry has a sign, like most laundries do, POSITIVELY NO DYEING. I drove all over town with a green bedspread until I came to Angel’s with his yellow sign, YOU CAN DIE HERE ANYTIME.”

A Manual for Cleaning Women is a tremendous collection. Where it explores the pain of death, addiction, abuse, and poverty, it also never strays far from the direct humour that remains a part of these experiences. There is a conventional and generally unspoken wisdom that depictions of moments so wrought with pain are inappropriate ground for comedy or absurdity. That we somehow do an injustice to the gravity of life’s challenges by acknowledging the edge of laughter that they so often encourage. Berlin rejects this narrative, instead remaining true to the emotional subtleties and variety that is certainly a component of the gravest challenges. For this reason, Lucia Berlin is an author deserving of wide readership. Her work is a call to pause and luxuriate in the details – the donkeys, laundromat signs, and mating crows – participating in the vibrant clarity afforded by even life’s darkest moments.

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