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  • Writer's pictureShawn McNulty-Kowal

Lucia Berlin - Lost Classic for 'Reaction'

Updated: May 12, 2020

In a letter to her friend and poet, Ed Dorn, Lucia Berlin writes,

I am not so worried about the badness of the writing itself...Really, I know my writing is bad...but I’m not an amateur...if only because I have a lot of things I want to tell, to put down and say. This is about something that was very beautiful and valid for me. I want desperately, really, to learn how to write it that way.

Lucia Berlin, born in Juneau, Alaska on November 12, 1936, died on her 68th birthday in Marina del Rey, California. After her death, a collection of her short stories, AManual For Cleaning Women,​ reached the top of the New York Times Bestsellers List within the second week of release. This critical and public praise was far from the reality through which Berlin lived. Today, many note her as one of America’s best kept literary secrets. However, Berlin was shy to keep her work a secret. Her first collection of short stories, ​Angel’s Laundromat​, drifted onto the literary scene in 1981. During her lifetime, Berlin published seventy-six of her stories and a small, sincere audience held onto them. Generally accepted as self-fiction, her stories seem to straddle an in-between of her truth and a more mesmerizing tale​ of the truth. Something, it seems, only nostalgia is capable of producing. In 1959, Lucia Berlin writes once more to Ed Dorn in order to express this, “And this false positiveness and this vanity is what screws up the rhythm, because I stop like a little kid passing olives to see if the grown-ups are watching.”

She wrote with the cognizance of a house cat, so nosy and nimble. The humor of a rolling stone, at times, melancholic and unrelenting - her prose sings like jazz. Her stories suggest that she lived like a transient, never settling. She lived beside alcoholism, passed down from her mother, and scoliosis since the age of ten. Closer to the tail end of her life, she lived with a punctured lung due to complications suffered from the long-endured spinal ailment. While she was a young girl, she found her youth in several mining camps where her father worked as an engineer. However, in the year of 1941, her father went to serve in World War II, which prompted the family to move. During the length of the war, Lucia lived extravagantly with her mother’s family in El Paso, TX. This period of her life is highlighted in her story, “Dr. H. A. Moynihan.” Here, she writes about her grandfather’s mad dental practice, her time spent in Catholic School where she got expelled for striking a nun. The story is saturated with vignettes of her mother’s alcoholism, “At night, with the help of morphine, [Grandma] would doze off and my mother and Grandpa would each drink alone in their separate rooms. I could hear the separate gurgles of bourbon from the porch where I slept.”

It seems substance abuse pervaded much of Berlin’s life. Her third husband wrangled daily with a drug addiction during the Berlin’s temporary stint in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was in Albuquerque when Berlin recognized fear as if it had laid itself into her new last name. Her only nonfiction body of work, ​Welcome Home​, is a collection of records for all the various places she called home. On Albuquerque, she wrote, “I learned fear here. My fear of the drug dealers, my fear of the drug. Their fear of the narcs, one another, of not having a fix...‘You only look in my eyes now to see if they are pinned,’ [Buddy] said. True.”

While much of her life sank itself between addiction and a sort of transience that was only sometimes welcomed, she found beauty and relief in romance, travel and family. This addiction to romance or this desperate ache for a translation of beauty moved Lucia and it seemed to have morphed her stories into things that billow. Things that could seemingly go on forever if you just let them. Her stories end where your introspection begins and if you could just let that billow. Her three posthumously published bodies of work exhume and display her own preoccupation with the beautifully mundane.

In ​A Manual For Cleaning Women,​ “Melina” tells the story of its namesake, who steals the hearts of four different men; the narrator of the story shares a relationship with two of those men. Lucia Berlin describes the unavoidable draw of Melina in such a plain way. On Melina, Berlin writes, “That’s how she affected you...You had to be near her immediately,” Berlin continues, “She was so dazzling. She didn’t really do anything special, her ​being ​dazzled. I wanted to impress her.” Berlin describes Melina in a way that turns the latter almost untouchable. But the way Melina cries, Berlin seems to think, is what penetrates Melina’s most untouchable parts. On this, Berlin writes, “I told [Melina] that she never ever cried, not when she was sad or mad. But that if someone was really kind and just put their hand on her head and said not to worry, that might make her cry...” This part of Melina, it seems, is precisely what makes her so ​dazzling.​

Berlin starts “Luna Nueva” from ​Evening In Paradise, ​“The sun set with a hiss as the wave hit the beach.” She tells a story of the meditative power behind recalling a memory that has no pain associated with it. She stands above a natural swimming pool, situated atop the Pacific ocean. She looks on from the esplanade as a young woman brings a seventy-eight year old woman into the pool to swim. The older woman recalls her husband who passed and the young woman recalls her dead mother. Together, they wade in memory. When the strangers part, they kiss and “the kiss was soft as mangoes.” As the story ends and the two women leave one another, “the breeze was inexpressibly gentle.”

Stories like “Melina” and “Luna Nueva” encapsulate Lucia Berlin’s literary lure nicely, but not entirely. When discussing Lucia Berlin as a literary figure, many make certain to note the way her life was smoldered by addiction and romantic rendezvous. While this part of Berlin’s identity is important, I argue that it is not what makes reading her stories simply and totally all-consuming. Her reckoning with beauty and its subjectivity, its malleability and singularity is what transforms her stories into temporary homes. The way she implies beauty as fact and implicitly urges the reader to do the same is what presents her stories as hammocks that balance us above both nostalgia and oblivion. Lucia Berlin is one of America’s unsung literary icons and while she has passed, her stories still sing like jazz.

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