'A Manual For Cleaning Women' Showcases A Gritty, One-Of-A-Kind Voice

Aug 24, 2015
Originally published on August 24, 2015 4:13 pm

My grandmother worked all her life cleaning houses and offices, so it's hard for me to resist a short story collection called A Manual for Cleaning Women. Cleaning ladies are rare characters in literary fiction; so, too, are clerical workers, hospital staff and switchboard operators, but they populate Lucia Berlin's stories because Berlin herself held those kinds of jobs. In addition, she was a divorced mother of four and an alcoholic. Unlike cleaning ladies, divorcees and alcoholics are a dime a dozen in fiction, but Berlin puts her own jagged imprint on their tales.

Berlin died in 2004; she'd been publishing her stories for decades in magazines and small-press books. She was the kind of writer other writers knew about, and the literary godmother, it seems to me, of tough female writers like Jennifer Egan and Rachel Kushner.

This collection of 43 of Berlin's stories — which is introduced by Lydia Davis, another, much better known "writer's writer" — aims to bring Berlin the recognition she never enjoyed in her own rocky lifetime.

Berlin's stories are mostly written in first person: You can imagine the narrators sitting down next to you in a bar after work, ordering their first bottom-shelf shot and, unbidden, starting to talk about their crappy day. Here's the opening of a story called "My Jockey," which, at 1 1/2 pages, is one of the shortest pieces in this collection:

I like working in Emergency — you meet men there, anyway. Real men, heroes. Firemen and jockeys. They're always coming into emergency rooms. Jockeys have wonderful X-rays. They break bones all the time but just tape themselves up and ride the next race. Their skeletons look like trees, like reconstructed brontosaurs. St. Sebastian's X-rays.

Berlin wrings a world out of those few words. When our narrator tells us that you meet "real men" in emergency rooms, you get the sense she's met more than her share of losers. And, when she's talking about injured jockeys' X-rays and evokes surreal comparisons with brontosaurs and the broken bodies of Catholic martyrs, you're tipped off that this pink-collar worker has had the kind of elite education that would plant those images in her imagination.

Again, the source is autobiographical: Berlin's father, who worked in mining, moved his family to Chile after World War II, and there she was catapulted into high-society expatriate life ... only to tailspin, as an adult, into the ranks of the bohemian working class.

Having all these Berlin stories assembled together really gives a sense of their breadth: Berlin (and her fictional narrators) have seen it all — from the rich girls' schools in Chile, to the trailer parks and laundromats where folks live who routinely bum bus fare and beer money.

That isn't to say that Berlin's stories are just sociological character studies; as Lydia Davis emphasizes in her foreword, "things actually happen" in Berlin's work. One of the most "action packed" tales is called "Dr. H.A. Moynihan": it's inspired by Berlin's grandfather, who was a dentist (and an alcoholic) in Texas.

Told through the perspective of the dentist's young granddaughter, the story describes how one Sunday morning Dr. Moynihan calls a cab to go into his office. There, he shows his granddaughter a beautiful set of false teeth he's made for himself. Settling into his own dental chair, he takes a couple of belts of whiskey and begins pulling out his own teeth. The granddaughter who's reluctantly assisting him, says:

The sound was the sound of roots being ripped out, like trees being torn from winter ground. Blood dripped onto the tray, plop, plop, onto the metal [footrest] where I sat.

After this ordeal, Dr. Moynihan makes it home and collapses in bed. The granddaughter and her mother then have a conversation, which illuminates the family's strained psychological dynamics and brings the story to an abrupt close. Here's that brief conversation:

"He did a good job," my mother said.

"You don't still hate him, do you Mama?"

"Oh yes," she said. "Yes I do."

If you want consolation or uplift from your short stories, look elsewhere. Berlin had been around the block a few too many times to sugarcoat things. But her hard-earned, one-of-a-kind voice and vision make these stories well worth the pain.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. A hard-edged short story collection by a writer whose life was also hard-edged has been generating a lot of buzz in the literary world this month. Here's our book critic Maureen Corrigan's review of "A Manual For Cleaning Women" by Lucia Berlin.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: My grandmother worked all her life cleaning houses and offices, so it's hard for me to resist a short story collection called "A Manual For Cleaning Women." Cleaning ladies are rare characters in literary fiction, so, too, are clerical workers, hospital staff and switchboard operators. But they populate Lucia Berlin's stories because Berlin herself held those kinds of jobs. In addition, she was a divorced mother of four and an alcoholic. Unlike cleaning ladies, of course, divorcees and alcoholics are a dime a dozen in fiction. But Berlin puts her own jagged imprint on their tales.

Berlin died in 2004. She'd been publishing her stories for decades in magazines and small press books. She was the kind of writer other writers knew about and the literary godmother, it seems to me, of tough women writers like Jennifer Egan and Rachel Kushner.

This collection of 43 of Berlin's stories, which is introduced by Lydia Davis - another, much better-known, writer's writer - aims to bring Berlin the recognition she never enjoyed in her own rocky lifetime.

Berlin's stories are mostly written in first person. You can imagine the narrator sitting down next to you in a bar after work, ordering their first bottom-shelf shot and, unbidden, starting to talk about their crappy day. Here's the opening of a story called "My Jockey" which, at one and a half pages, is one of the shortest pieces in this collection.

(Reading) I like working in emergency. You meet men there anyway - real men - heroes - firemen and jockeys. They're always coming into emergency rooms. Jockeys have wonderful x-rays. They break bones all the time but just tape themselves up and ride the next race. Their skeletons look like trees, like reconstructed brontosaurs - St. Sebastian's x-rays.

Berlin wrings a world out of those few words. When our narrator tells us that you meet real men in emergency rooms, you get the sense she's met more than her share of losers. And when she's talking about injured jockeys' x-rays and evokes surreal comparisons with brontosaurs and the broken bodies of Catholic martyrs, you're tipped off that this pink-collar worker has had the kind of elite education that would plant those images in her imagination. Again, the source is autobiographical. Berlin's father, who worked in mining, moved his family to Chile after World War II. And there, she was catapulted into high-society, expatriate life, only to tailspin, as an adult, into the ranks of the bohemian working class.

Having all these Berlin stories assembled together really gives a sense of their breadth. Berlin and her fictional narrators have seen it all - from the rich girls' schools in Chile to the trailer parks and laundromats, where folks live who routinely bum bus fare and beer money. That isn't to say that Berlin's stories are just sociological character studies. As Lydia Davis emphasizes in her foreword, things actually happen in Berlin's work. One of the most action-packed tales is called "Dr. H. A. Moynihan." It's inspired by Berlin's grandfather, who was a dentist - and an alcoholic - in Texas.

Told through the perspective of the dentist's young granddaughter, the story describes how one Sunday morning, Dr. Moynihan calls a cab to go into his office. There, he shows granddaughter a beautiful set of false teeth he's made for himself. Settling into his own dental chair, he takes a couple of belts of whiskey and begins pulling out his own teeth. The granddaughter who's reluctantly assisting him says the sound was the sound of roots being ripped out, like trees being torn from winter ground. Blood dripped onto the tray - plop, plop - onto the metal footrest where I sat.

After this ordeal, Dr. Moynihan makes it home and collapses in bed. The granddaughter and her mother then have a conversation, which illuminates the family's strained psychological dynamics and brings the story to an abrupt close. Here's that brief conversation.

(Reading) He did a good job, my mother said. You don't still hate him, do you, Mama? Oh, yes, she said, yes, I do.

If you want consolation or uplift from your short stories, look elsewhere. Berlin had been around the block a few too many times to sugarcoat things, but her hard-earned one-of-a-kind voice and vision make these stories well worth the pain.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "A Manual For Cleaning Women" by Lucia Berlin.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we continue our end of summer series featuring some of our favorite interviews from this year so far. We'll hear from Richard Price. His latest novel "The Whites" is about cops.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RICHARD PRICE: It was the night of St. Patrick's - worst of the year for NYPD's Night Watch - the violence, the most spontaneous and low-tech.

GROSS: Richard Price also wrote the novels "Clockers" and "The Wanderers" and wrote for the HBO series "The Wire," so I hope you can join us tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.