‘Stars and Saints,’’ an early story in Lucia Berlin’s beautiful posthumous collection, “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” opens with an idyllic scene that quickly turns violent. One moment, a woman is smiling and sipping her morning coffee, watching as finches and doves eat the seeds she has tossed onto her deck. An instant later, two cats pounce forward and begin “chomping away on birds, feathers flying.” The man staying in her guest cottage looks out at the scene, sees her smiling, and thinks that the woman is delighted by the carnage. “There was no way I could explain that it had all happened so fast, that I wasn’t smiling away at the cats chewing the birds. It was that my happiness . . . hadn’t had time to fade.”
The episode encapsulates the experience of reading Berlin’s stories, which alternate between light and dark so seamlessly and suddenly that a certain emotion barely fades before you feel something abruptly different. The bleakness of some of her subjects — alcoholism, suicide, sickness — belies her wonderful gift for coaxing humor from the most improbable material. The comic moments, in turn, shade into deep poignancy. The result is a fictional world of wide-ranging impact, a powerful chiaroscuro that manages to encompass the full spectrum of human experience.
In her story “Emergency Room Notebook, 1977,” the narrator works as an ER nurse in Oakland, where she encounters lonely hypochondriacs as well as the gravely wounded. The former sometimes make her long for the latter: “Even more draining, and the real cause of tension and cynicism, is that so many of the patients we get in Emergency are not only not emergencies, there is nothing the matter with them at all. It gets so you yearn for a good cut-and-dried stabbing or a gunshot wound.”
An essential loneliness permeates this story. At one point, a funny non sequitur in an old woman’s dialogue shows her true motive for coming to the hospital: “ ‘There must be something the matter with my inner ear. My son Willie never calls.’ ” The narrator reflects on how other patients die surrounded by indifference, “when there are several children and in-laws I have called in from somewhere inconvenient and none of them seem to know each other or the dying parent at all. There is nothing to say. They keep talking about making arrangements, about having to make arrangements, about who will make arrangements.”
Every story displays similarly polished craftsmanship. Berlin is a master of evocative phrases that conjure the sensory world. Young girls slouch, “blowing smoke from their nostrils like petulant dragons.” The sound of teeth being pulled is like “trees being torn from winter ground.” Often the imagery is marvelously surprising and precise; a woman scuba diving, for instance, describes the water like this: “Near the bottom it is warm, sunny, a Montana meadow years ago.”
Many of the same characters recur in different stories, which gives the collection the feeling of an archeological site, with shards and scraps of a single larger story scattered across shorter narratives. The themes and experiences in her fiction roughly mirror the autobiographical contour of Berlin’s life. She was born in Alaska in 1936, grew up in mining towns throughout the West, moved to Chile as a teenager, and lived in Mexico City and across America as an adult, writing intermittently and supporting herself by doing everything from nursing to housecleaning to teaching. She struggled with alcoholism and died in 2004.
Berlin is not usually placed in the pantheon of short-story writers but deserves to be ranked alongside Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, and Anton Chekhov. She excels at pacing, structure, dialogue, characterization, description, and every other aspect of the form. In one of her stories, the narrator wonders, “What if our bodies were transparent, like a washing machine window? How wondrous to watch ourselves.” This is precisely what her stories allow us to do: to see ourselves rendered translucent by her exacting gaze.
Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.