A Manual for Cleaning Women. Lucia Berlin.

Berlin, Lucia. A Manual for Cleaning Women. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2015 (stories all published previously here selected posthumously) F;11/20.

This is a big collection (43 stories) of mostly linked and mostly autobiographical tales written by a sort of female Hemingway. Berlin lived a raucous life, at times wealthy at times destitute, much of it alcoholic, in Alaska, Albuquerque, El Paso, Mexico, Santiago, Oakland. She’d been married three times by the age of 34, and started writing in her 20s but published most of her stories in the 1980s, when she was fiftyish.

The stories are harsh, rub-your-nose-in-it slices of life that are straight out stated, never straying into affected simplicity. Lovely things and terrible things just happen. The first story, Angel’s Laundromat, had my reverse-snobbery antenna vibrating: encounters with “a tall old Indian in faded Levi’s and a fine Zuni belt.” The next three stories deal with narrator’s swashbuckling dentist grandfather, a young girl’s non-conformism in a Catholic school, the titular cleaning woman taking buses. I wasn’t impressed.

But then came My Jockey, one of the shortest of the stories. An emergency room nurse carries an injured semicomatose jockey to the x-ray and her emotions feel to me exactly what the professional emergency room worker experiences. Routine routine routine, and then motherhood, astounding admiration, sex, appreciation of perfection suddenly breaking through the perfunctory job without changing it in the least.

Point of View I think is the only one where the narrator is a writer. We are told

“I’m a single woman in her late 50s. I work in a doctor’s office. I ride home in the bus. Every Saturday I do my laundry and then I shop at Lucky’s and buy the Sunday Chronicle and go home.” You’d say, Give me a break.

The office assistant wiles her life away hopelessly in love with the doctor.

Her First Detox introduces Berlin’s alcoholism and there is no shadow of a doubt she knows hopelessness and shame, again with that matter-of-fact realism. In Tiger Bites narrator goes to Mexico for an abortion but decides against it and watches a very young girl in the clinic hemorrhage and nearly die. Her mindless rich young relative treats the whole thing as just another 24 hours.

I’ve worked in hospitals for years now and if there is one thing I’ve learned it’s that the sicker the patients are the less noise they make. That’s why I ignore the patient intercom

says a middle-aged hospital unit clerk. But the eyes of an elderly patient remind her of an old lover.

Unmanageable tracks the shame and desperation of an alcoholic single woman with teenage kids who know what’s going on with mum and are mundanely but unsuccessfully trying to protect her. In Dear Conchi a young girl corresponding with one of her friends at first feels out of place in university but eventually drifts into the bohemian life, enjoys literature and does some writing, is interested in various men but falls in love with a Mexican guy her parents strongly disapprove of. They all meet when the parents come to visit. She tells the Mexican who wants to get married that she isn’t ready yet, and he angrily breaks up their relationship and tells her, “You won’t know for a long time what it is you’re throwing away.” and then “No, you’ll go on, have “relationships”, marry some asshole.”

Silence is a long story about a young girl who never seems to fit in in schools and continually gets in trouble. She makes a good friend of a Syrian girl next door, they steal things from stores and develop a small business but are taken advantage of by an older boy. His cheating them, once revealed, prompts the girls to agree that he’s an unconscionable bastard. But later, the boy in spite of his dishonesty attracted both of the girls convinces the narrator to let him drive her home in a fancy car, her friend sees them, and never speaks to her again.

There are too many stories to precis and comment on. I remember finding another long story collection by one of my favourite authors, Vladimir Nabokov, too much to finish and a few of the stories frankly not worth reading. But Berlin’s collection held my interest partly by continually shifting the gears of content without ever losing her stark transparency. At each beginning it’s clear something is going to happen, and usually it does.

This broad collection shows many almost incompatible sides of this unique female writer’s impressive imagination. I hope you agree with my high recommendation. 9.5/9.1.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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