Authors: Lucia Berlin
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’s stories are electric, they buzz and crackle as the live wires touch. And in response, the reader’s mind, too, beguiled, enraptured, comes alive, all synapses firing. This is the way we like to be, when we’re reading—using our brains, feeling our hearts beat.
Part of the vibrancy of
’s prose is in the pacing—sometimes fluent and calm, balanced, ambling and easy; and sometimes staccato, notational, speedy. Part of it is in her specific naming of things: Piggly Wiggly (a supermarket), Beenie-Weenie Wonder (a strange culinary creation), Big Mama panty hose (a way to tell us how large the narrator is). It is in the dialogue. What is that exclamation? “Jesus wept.” “Well, I’m blamed!” The characterization: The boss of the switchboard operators says she can tell when it’s close to quitting time by the behavior of Thelma: “Your wig gets crooked and you start talking dirty.”
And there is the language itself, word by word.
is always listening, hearing. Her sensitivity to the sounds of the language is always there, and we, too, savor the rhythms of the syllables, or the perfect coincidence of sound and sense. An angry switchboard operator moves “with much slamming and slapping of her things.” In another story, Berlin evokes the cries of the “gawky raucous crows.” In a letter she wrote to me from Colorado in 2000, “Branches heavy with snow break and crack against my roof and the wind shakes the walls. Snug though, like being in a good sturdy boat, a scow or a tug.” (Hear those monosyllables, and that rhyme.)
* * *
Her stories are also full of surprises: unexpected phrases, insights, turns of events, humor, as in “So Long,” whose narrator is living in Mexico and speaking mostly Spanish, and comments a little sadly: “Of course I have a self here, and a new family, new cats, new jokes. But I keep trying to remember who I was in English.”
In “Panteón de Dolores,” the narrator, as child, is contending with a difficult mother—as she will in several more stories:
One night after he had gone home she came in, to the bedroom where I slept with her. She kept on drinking and crying and scribbling, literally scribbling, in her diary.
“Are you okay?” I finally asked her, and she slapped me.
In “Dear Conchi,” the narrator is a wry, smart college student:
Ella, my roommate … I wish we got along better. Her mother mails her her Kotex from Oklahoma every month. She’s a drama major. God, how can she ever play Lady Macbeth if she can’t relax about a little blood?
Or the surprise can come in a simile—and her stories are rich in similes:
In “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” she writes, “Once he told me he loved me because I was like San Pablo Avenue.”
She goes right on to another, even more surprising comparison: “He was like the Berkeley dump.”
And she is just as lyrical describing a dump (whether in Berkeley or in Chile) as she is describing a field of wildflowers:
I wish there was a bus to the dump. We went there when we got homesick for New Mexico. It was stark and windy and gulls soared like nighthawks in the desert. You can see the sky all around you and above you. Garbage trucks thunder through dust-billowing roads. Gray dinosaurs.
* * *
Always embedding the stories in a real physical world is just this kind of concrete physical imagery: the trucks “thunder,” the dust “billows.” Sometimes the imagery is beautiful, at other times it is not beautiful but intensely palpable: we experience each story not only with our intellects and our hearts, but also through our senses. The smell of the history teacher, her sweat and mildewed clothing, in “Good and Bad.” Or, in another story, “the sinking soft tarmac … the dust and sage.” The cranes flying up “with the sound of shuffling cards.” The “Caliche dust and oleander.” The “wild sunflowers and purple weed” in yet another story; and crowds of poplars, planted years before in better times, thriving in a slum. She was always watching, even if only out the window (when it became hard for her to move): in that same letter of 2000 to me, magpies “dive-bomb” for the apple pulp—“quick flashes of aqua and black against the snow.”
A description can start out romantic—“the parroquia in Veracruz, palm trees, lanterns in the moonlight”—but the romanticism is cut, as in real life, by the realistic Flaubertian detail, so sharply observed by her: “dogs and cats among the dancers’ polished shoes.” A writer’s embrace of the world is all the more evident when she sees the ordinary along with the extraordinary, the commonplace or the ugly along with the beautiful.
She credits her mother, or one of her narrators does, with teaching her that observant eye:
We have remembered your way of looking, never missing a thing. You gave us that. Looking.
Not listening though. You’d give us maybe five minutes, to tell you about something, and then you’d say, “Enough.”
The mother stayed in her bedroom drinking. The grandfather stayed in his bedroom drinking. The girl heard the separate gurgling of their bottles from the porch where she slept. In a story, but maybe also in reality—or the story is an exaggeration of the reality, so acutely witnessed, so funny, that even as we feel the pain of it, we have that paradoxical pleasure in the way it is told, and the pleasure is greater than the pain.
* * *
based many of her stories on events in her own life. One of her sons said, after her death, “Ma wrote true stories, not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes.”
Although people talk, as though it were a new thing, about the form of fiction known in France as
(“self-fiction”), the narration of one’s own life, lifted almost unchanged from the reality, selected and judiciously, artfully told,
has been doing this, or a version of this, as far as I can see, from the beginning, back in the 1960s. Her son went on to say, “Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.”
Of course, for the sake of balance, or color, she changed whatever she had to, in shaping her stories—details of events and descriptions, chronology. She admitted to exaggerating. One of her narrators says, “I exaggerate a lot and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don’t actually ever lie.”
Certainly she invented. For example, Alastair Johnston, the publisher of one of her early collections, reports this conversation: “I love that description of your aunt at the airport,” he said to her, “how you sank into her great body like a chaise.” Her answer was: “The truth is … no one met me. I thought of that image the other day and as I was writing that story just worked it in.” In fact, some of her stories were entirely made up, as she explains in an interview. A person could not think he knew her just because he had read her stories.
* * *
Her life was rich and full of incident, and the material she took from it for her stories was colorful, dramatic, and wide-ranging. The places she and her family lived in her childhood and youth were determined by her father—where he worked in her early years, then his going off to serve in WWII, and then his job when he returned from the war. Thus, she was born in Alaska and grew up first in mining camps in the west of the U.S.; then lived with her mother’s family in El Paso while her father was gone; then was transplanted south into a very different life in Chile, one of wealth and privilege, which is portrayed in her stories about a teenage girl in Santiago, about Catholic school there, about political turbulence, yacht clubs, dressmakers, slums, revolution. As an adult she continued to lead a restless life, geographically, living in Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico, New York City; one of her sons remembers moving about every nine months as a child. Later in her life she taught in Boulder, Colorado, and at the very end of it she moved closer to her sons, to Los Angeles.
She writes about her sons—she had four—and the jobs she worked to support them, often on her own. Or, we should say, she writes about a woman with four sons, jobs like her jobs—cleaning woman, ER nurse, hospital ward clerk, hospital switchboard operator, teacher.
She lived in so many places, experienced so much—it was enough to fill several lives. We have, most of us, known at least some part of what she went through: children in trouble, or early molestation, or a rapturous love affair, struggles with addiction, a difficult illness or disability, an unexpected bond with a sibling, or a tedious job, difficult fellow workers, a demanding boss, or a deceitful friend, not to speak of awe in the presence of the natural world—Hereford cattle knee deep in Indian paintbrush, a field of bluebonnets, a pink rocket flower growing in the alley behind a hospital. Because we have known some part of it, or something like it, we are right there with her as she takes us through it.
* * *
Things actually happen in the stories—a whole mouthful of teeth gets pulled at once; a little girl gets expelled from school for striking a nun; an old man dies in a mountaintop cabin, his goats and his dog in bed with him; the history teacher with her mildewed sweater is dismissed for being a Communist—“That’s all it took. Three words to my father. She was fired sometime that weekend and we never saw her again.”
Is this why it is almost impossible to stop reading a story of
’s once you begin? Is it because things keep happening? Is it also the narrating voice, so engaging, so companionable? Along with the economy, the pacing, the imagery, the clarity? These stories make you forget what you were doing, where you are, even who you are.
“Wait,” begins one story. “Let me explain…” It is a voice close to Lucia’s own, though never identical. Her wit and her irony flow through the stories and overflow in her letters, too: “She is taking her medication,” she told me once, in 2002, about a friend, “which makes a big difference! What did people do before Prozac? Beat up horses I guess.”
Beat up horses. Where did that come from? The past was maybe as alive in her mind as were other cultures, other languages, politics, human foibles; the range of her reference so rich and even exotic that switchboard operators lean into their boards like milkmaids leaning into their cows; or a friend comes to the door, “Her black hair … up in tin rollers, like a kabuki headdress.”
The past—I read this passage from “So Long” a few times, with relish, with wonder, before I realized what she was doing:
One night it was bitterly cold, Ben and Keith were sleeping with me, in snowsuits. The shutters banged in the wind, shutters as old as Herman Melville. It was Sunday so there were no cars. Below in the streets the sailmaker passed, in a horse-drawn cart. Clop clop. Sleet hissed cold against the windows and Max called. Hello, he said. I’m right around the corner in a phone booth.
He came with roses, a bottle of brandy and four tickets to Acapulco. I woke up the boys and we left.
They were living in lower Manhattan, at a time when the heat would be turned off at the end of the working day if you lived in a loft. Maybe the shutters really were as old as Herman Melville, since in some parts of Manhattan buildings did date from the 1860s, back then, more of them than now, though now, too. Though it could be that she is exaggerating again—a beautiful exaggeration, if so, a beautiful flourish. She goes on: “It was Sunday so there were no cars.” That sounded realistic, so, then, I was fooled by the sailmaker and the horse-drawn cart, which came next—I believed it and accepted it, and only realized after another reading that she must have jumped back effortlessly into Melville’s time again. The “Clop clop,” too, is something she likes to do—waste no words, add a detail in note form. The “sleet hissing” took me in there, within those walls, and then the action accelerated and we were suddenly on our way to Acapulco.