Before there was Ben Lerner, before there was Renata Adler, there was Lucia Berlin.
As Lydia Davis writes in the foreword to this posthumous collection, "A Manual for Cleaning Women," "Although people talk, as though it were a new thing, about the form of fiction known in France as auto-fiction ('self-fiction'), the narration of one's own life, lifted almost unchanged from the reality, selected and judiciously, artfully told, Lucia Berlin has been doing this … as far as I can see, from the beginning, back in the 1960s."
Although a handful are scant and don't deserve to be included, most of the 43 short stories here are darkly funny, emotionally raw and wickedly wise. Like George Orwell, Berlin had a great affinity for the down-and-out, which describes much of her adult life.
As a girl, she lived a life of privilege in Chile. Her understanding of the high and low, the rough and the refined, gives her work depth. So does her gimlet eye. In one of her stories, the narrator remembers that her harsh mother gave her and her sister the knack of "looking." She herself cultivated the gift beyond looking, of seeing, beneath the pieties, falsities and platitudes.
The title story turns on smart, pithy observations about the relationship between cleaning women and their clients, written as parenthetical directions: "(Cleaning Women: Let them know you are thorough. The first day put all the furniture back wrong.)"
Two stories are set in coin laundries, about characters living in close quarters who often have no coins to operate the machines. In some stories the characters are in detox. Rarely has a writer written so graphically of the physical rigors of alcoholism. Berlin (1934-2004) grew up with a depressed alcoholic mother and a drunken dentist grandfather. She herself eventually conquered alcoholism. One of the strongest stories in the collection, "Silence," treats that family legacy.
Set in far-flung mining towns and in West Texas, Albuquerque, N.M., and Oakland, Calif., and featuring characters who, like Berlin, worked in emergency rooms, and as teachers, switchboard operators and cleaning ladies, these stories are written with wit, humor and spiky prose. One could say Berlin writes with compassion, but that is condescending. Berlin writes with comprehension of human strength and human frailty.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and book reviewer and member of the National Book Critics Circle.