‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’

A MANUAL FOR CLEANING WOMEN: Selected Stories. By Lucia Berlin. Edited by Stephen Emerson. FSG. 403 pages. $26.

Lucia Berlin’s stories transport us perfectly to a West where day-dreamy details bump up against rugged truths.

A story (“Mama”), for instance, that looks at the origins of a narrator very like Berlin herself begins with a hopeful voyage to Alaska. Her mother stands at the ship’s rail, surveying the “navy blue water and green pines on the shore of this wild, clean country.” She is on the way to meet Berlin’s father, her new husband. The captain pours her extra-large gins and calls her “my dusky beauty.”

Berlin has a way of nailing down a mood or a moment in a way that holds all its latent potential and its degraded reality. Before the story is over, the marriage is a mess. “Mama” is slitting her own wrists and addressing suicide notes to her daughter signed “Bloody Mary.” The seeds of despair never fully take hold in her daughter. Berlin’s gutsy stories are highly addictive, and far from joyless.

Lucia Berlin died on her birthday in 2004, age 68. So, who was she, and why haven’t we heard more from her? During her lifetime, she published 76 stories, 43 of them collected here. She knew Saul Bellow and Lydia Davis, who introduces this volume, and August Kleinzahler, who corresponded with her for many years. Her biography has the harum-scarum quality of one of her fictions.

Born in Alaska, she spent part of her childhood living in Western mining camps, where her father was a mining engineer. When he left to serve in World War II, she, her sister and mother moved to El Paso. Her maternal grandfather was a dentist there and the model for “Dr. Moynihan,” a story set in that time and place. As the grandmother of the story is dying, Mama and Grandfather Moynihan drink alone in their separate rooms. The narrator can hear “the separate gurgles of bourbon.” The war over, Berlin moved with her family to Santiago, Chile, and a life of privilege.

By her early 30s, Berlin was herself an alcoholic, with three divorces and four sons. The settings of some of her stories reflect this history. We enter psych wards, detox units, squad cars and know disappointments. Like Berlin, the stories move from Chile to Albuquerque to New York to Oakland to Mexico to Boulder. In her 50s, she finally became sober.

Berlin involves us in what some would consider blighted lives. Her stories are intricately patterned and artful, often set in multiple time periods. One night working as an emergency room nurse in the story “Temps Perdu,” Berlin’s surrogate sees a man whose eyes transport her back to Mullan, Idaho, one of the mining towns of her childhood. He reminds her of a wild and inventive boy, Kentshereve, who ate hyacinth bulbs and made creamed chipped beef with Jergen’s lotion. As children, they stripped bare and counted each other’s moles.

As so often happens, the power of the story comes from the concurrent worlds — the wild Idaho of memory and the mechanical emergency room of the story’s present tense. Though they are rich in experience, at no time is she or one of her alter-egos a raging worldly success. In story after story, Berlin takes the lid off the American narrative of improvement. Even as a child, she looks around her and sees “symmetry and synchronicity,” knowing that she’s the odd and disorderly one out.

Whatever she calls herself — Lu, Lou, LB, Carlotta, Delores — Berlin is the most fully realized character in the book, made vivid first by her mother’s attention. And the mother! An eerie duplication runs through the stories. Berlin’s mother is always just ahead, trying out forms of downfall that Berlin will catch up with later.

The core origin story for LB, Lou, etc., is the one about how the dusky beauty on the deck became a cynic who blamed the pope for starting “the rumor that love made people happy.” The mother in these stories is so alive, it’s hard to imagine she spent most of her later years trying to die. “Mama,” “Pantheon de Delores,” and many other stories revel in the legacy of a woman whom Berlin calls “My Mama, Madame Bovary.”

What does it mean to be bred in disappointment? In unforgettable language, Lucia Berlin tells us. But she also tells us what it is to understand the mystery of love and to accept fallibility. Taken together, her stories offer an unflinching record of one person’s passage through time.

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.