There are masters of the paragraph and masters of the sentence; Lucia Berlin is the master of the fragment. Her deliberate abbreviations slipstream off one another. Less drag, high velocity; the story propels forward. Take this succession from the story “Strays,” set in a desolate rehab facility outside Albuquerque: “Fallen-down barracks. Torn and rusted venetian blinds rattling in the wind. Pinups peeled off the walls. Three- or four-foot sand dunes in every room. Dunes, with waves and patterns like in postcards from the Painted Desert.” Rather than create pauses, her descriptions ignite the story, keep it in motion. Like this from “The Musical Vanity Boxes,” as Raúl, a father from Juarez, leads young “Lucha” and her Syrian best friend Hope back over the border to El Paso: “Gentle, like the pull of a dowser’s branch, drawing our bony bodies into the pachuco beat of his walk, so light, slow, swinging.”
Berlin’s first posthumous collected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women (2015), showcased her extraordinary and underappreciated talent and her fantastic range; the second, Evening in Paradise, recently published alongside a companion volume of her memoir and letters, presumes to show us this and more: her life.
Lucia Berlin was born in Juneau, Alaska in 1936 and died in 2004 on her own birthday at the age of sixty-eight, a full-circle distinction she shares with William Shakespeare and Merle Haggard. In Lucia Berlin years, sixty-eight must somehow be more than what it is for most human beings, for in just short of seven decades she filled her life with the kind of restless, electric fervor that ricochets through her short stories.
Berlin forged her own idea of what a short story could be, yet she “seemed to have read everything, and could talk about it with humor and passion,” wrote her friend Michael Wolfe, who edited her 1984 collection Phantom Pain. She once said she believed that Jane Austen’s world “was as hard as some alcoholic in a motel room in a Raymond Carver story.” She had lived high and low, in Alaska, Montana, Texas, Chile, New Mexico, New York City, Mexico, California, Colorado, looking out onto the northern lights, in tar-paper cabins and in mining camps and by walls of pink oleander and above factories that reeked of ham. She counted among her best friends jazz musicians, the Black Mountain poets, the mother of the Black Panther Huey P. Newton. She lived in so many places she was sometimes mistaken for being from them. Once, invited to speak on a panel of “ethnic female writers,” she corrected the moderator: “I’m not a feminist and I’m a WASP essentially, but I’ve lived in other countries and I don’t like to be categorized in any way.” Though she bristled in particular at the word survivor, she lived through numerous husbands and lovers (with whom she had four children); a succession of low-paying jobs (even as a teacher she preferred prison classrooms over academia); a lifelong battle with alcoholism and a hard-won sobriety. She published six collections of fiction, all of which drew heavily on those sixty-eight fully lived years, none of which got the recognition they deserved in her lifetime.
A Manual for Cleaning Women, which was spearheaded by Berlin’s good friends Stephen Emerson, Barry Gifford, and Michael Wolfe, collected forty-three stories from Berlin’s small-press editions. Its global acclaim far exceeded anyone’s expectations. The collection was a best seller; it made the New York Times annual top-ten list; it has been translated into twenty-one languages.
One might assume that the simultaneous publication of two new posthumous works—one a collection of previously published short stories, the other of letters, photographs, and a deeply evocative but unfinished memoir covering the first twenty-eight years of her life—would serve to encourage readers to align her fiction with its biographical source material. But Evening in Paradise and Welcome Home serve instead as a testament to Berlin’s powers of fiction and self-invention.
“I exaggerate a lot and I get fiction and reality messed up, but I don’t ever lie,” one of Berlin’s protagonists says. As her friend Lydia Davis writes in the foreword to Manual, Berlin’s stories were transformations, not distortions, of the truth. “Ma wrote true stories, not exactly autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes,” her son Mark wrote after her death and one year before his own, in the essay that now introduces Evening in Paradise. Lucia’s adventures were her sons’ bedtime stories, and sometimes they found their way into the fiction she typed late into the night alongside a disappearing bottle of bourbon. Once she sent a manuscript page, riddled with wine rings, to The Paris Review (“because they’re always printing ‘the pages from the writer,’ ” she said; her submission went unanswered). And yet, despite the mythologizing of her life, the majority of her stories were written after she became sober.
Sometimes her sons’ names appear in her stories; sometimes one or more of the four of them have different names; sometimes the protagonist is called Lucia. “I don’t know why I have my name in some stories and not in others,” she told an interviewer in 1996. “Come to think of it I don’t know why I don’t have my name in all of them. I can’t imagine what effect this has upon readers … I hope they feel that the story is true.”
Readers want to believe in a “real” character as much as children want to believe in the tooth fairy. And the people in most writers’ lives both want to be written about and they don’t. As a writer who works in both fiction and nonfiction, I have said as much before to people in my life: you’ll see yourself in short stories where you aren’t and miss yourself where you are. Lucia Berlin worked this desire in her readers and her characters to supreme and devastating effect. I find Berlin’s willful inconsistency both admirable and liberating.
“Is it also the narrating voice, so engaging, so companionable?” Davis writes, trying to decipher Berlin’s charm. Berlin wrote like a friend, but one that will never lie to you; she possessed a graveside-bedside manner. In “Silence,” the character Lucha says, “I don’t mind saying awful things, as long as I can make them funny.”
“It’s one of the things I find so refreshing and revelatory about Lucia’s stories, the way she used autobiography so naturally, so flexibly,” I wrote to Emerson shortly after the publication of A Manual for Cleaning Women, curious to know more about Berlin’s biography. Even though deep down I knew better. As Berlin herself said in a 1994 interview with Bonnie Tawse published in the journal Sniper Logic, “I read biographies incessantly, trying to get the secret: how would they do it … and I love to see manuscripts, and I’ll read again that they worked from nine in the morning to five at night … oh God, that’s how they do it! It’s like how do people lose weight? We know how they lose weight, they don’t eat. Writers write? They write … oh God, there must be another way!”
Emerson’s decades-long friendship with Berlin began in the seventies. She was living in a succession of Oakland and Berkeley apartments then (in Welcome Home, in the evocative list titled “The Trouble with All the Houses I’ve Lived In,” she includes eight from that time, among them two evictions and one roof fallen in). Emerson had recently arrived from North Carolina, where he had met Berlin’s friend Robert Creeley at Duke. When Emerson’s book Neighbors was released, he remembers, Berlin came to a small celebratory dinner party at a Haitian restaurant in Oakland. “I remember her coming up to me with great delight and saying, in a drawl she sometimes used, ‘Break out the books…’As if they were champagne. By this time we seemed to be pals.”
“I know you’re speaking here of the way she used her life,” Emerson responded when I first raised the question of her biography, “but I think the feeling has to do with the way the stories are written, as well.” I agreed. It was not the actual life material—however tantalizing—but Berlin’s openness to a narrative that often did not follow a traditional arc, to tales that revealed themselves in unusual forms. As a writer perhaps one of her greatest talents, aside from her deceptively breezy voice, those clipped fragments, her extrasensory language, was that she allowed herself to be receptive to the possibility of the story itself.
Reading her stories—the rebellious romance of “Let Me See You Smile,” (a favorite of her friend Barry Gifford’s) or the forthright hospital stories (“My Jockey,” “Emergency Room Notebook,” “Temps Perdu”), it is hard to think of Lucia Berlin as shy, but apparently she could be. In a video that survives of a reading in Oakland in 1984, shortly before the publication of Phantom Pain, she is soft-spoken at the lectern. That trace of anxiety jars with her Elizabeth Taylor beauty, her dramatic brows and ice-blue eyes. “It was as if she was afraid she was going to screw up, afraid she was going to act like an alcoholic: fall down, spew nonsense, act neurotic,” Emerson, who shared a copy of the video with me, wrote in a note. “Very different from how she was after she got sober.”
One of the stories Berlin read that evening was “The Pony Bar, Oakland,” which is reprinted in Evening in Paradise. “It’s a terrific piece, but I left it out [of A Manual for Cleaning Women] because I thought it might scare people,” Emerson said. “A small one-page story that sounded kind of hostile and angry, even though it’s also very humorous. I have on occasion regretted not including that one.”
The story features a narrator who comes from the terrain of tennis, golf, cricket, but gets “dizzy at the sound of a perfect pool break … the caressing twist twist of chalk on the cue” and a biker covered in tattoos of hinges. In the video, as Berlin reads the final exchange (“You need a hinge on your neck.” “You need a screw up your ass”), a little roar erupts from the room and she looks up, surprised and delighted. She cracks a smile. Then she allows herself to laugh with them.
In the end, the master of the fragment left behind a fragmented life story. Berlin lost two novels in her lifetime, one that she burned and later admitted “was probably pretty good … a real southern gothic about my terrible childhood and all these awful people.” Another, she told Bonnie Tawse, was stolen in Mexico. No unpublished short stories have emerged since her death, Emerson told me. It was the same way he spoke of her unsparing prose: “Lucia wasted nothing.”
And yet her unfinished memoir Welcome Home stops abruptly, in 1965, on a scene where her heroin-addicted third husband and great love, Buddy Berlin, is shaking from withdrawal. It ends without so much as a punctuation mark:
Buddy lay curled up and shaking on the back seat
In Evening in Paradise’s short story “La Barca de la Ilusíon,” fiction permits revenge and deliverance: Berlin’s protagonist is given the satisfaction of watching the drug dealer stalking her addicted husband die. Real life offered no such solace. Perhaps, as Jeff Berlin has suggested, her memory failed her. Perhaps, in memoir, it became simply too much for the writer to bear. Following the story of her own life to its biographical conclusion might not have given her the same level of truth as she found in fiction. As Berlin told Tawse, “I do like feeling that life goes on and this is what happens—life goes on.”
Rebecca Bengal writes fiction, essays, and long-form journalism and lives in New York City.