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The Revival of the Great Lucia Berlin Continues Apace

Posted October 29, 2018 5:10 p.m. EDT

Two of the best reasons to be alive as a reader this decade have been the rediscovery of two American writers who published much of their best work in the 1970s and ‘80s: Eve Babitz and Lucia Berlin. They’ve moved from the periphery of my own literary consciousness to somewhere not terribly far from the center.

They’re very different. Babitz’s work — read the memoirs first — is shrewd, knowing and sun-drenched. She resembles what Collette, the experience-hungry French writer, might have sounded like if she’d come of age in Los Angeles when the Mamas and the Papas were breaking out on the radio.

Berlin (1936-2004) was a writer of tender, chaotic and careworn short stories. Her work can remind you of Raymond Carver’s or Grace Paley’s or Denis Johnson’s; her stories mine a blue-collar vein even when she’s writing about men who went to Harvard and drive Porsches. With their bed-head and heartsickness, her characters can also seem to have fallen out of Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis” album.

Berlin (her first name is pronounced Lu-see-a) published 76 stories during her lifetime. Many of these were collected and issued in book form by California-based Black Sparrow Press, which also published Charles Bukowski. They’ve begun to be reissued now by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

The book to find first is “A Manual for Cleaning Women,” an important selection of her stories that appeared in 2015. Rereading my review of that collection, I’m embarrassed to see that I said of it, “This book would have been twice as good at a bit more than half the length.” I added, “Ms. Berlin is a writer you want in your back pocket; this volume’s tombstone heft turns her into homework. Stories could have been omitted."

I still think she’s a writer you want in your back pocket, in slim volumes the size of Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son.” But I regret any implication that her work was already, in that book, beginning to thin out. In part this is because Farrar, Straus & Giroux is here with another potent selection of her stories, published under the title “Evening in Paradise.” There is little if any diminishment in quality or intensity.

The publisher has also released “Welcome Home: A Memoir with Selected Photographs and Letters.” This memoir, which lacks the richness of Berlin’s fiction, had been left uncompleted. The letters are mostly to a friend and mentor, poet Edward Dorn. “Welcome Home” is mostly of biographical interest; it’s a stand-in until the inevitable biography of Berlin is written.

The stories in “Evening in Paradise” are set in Chile and Texas and Mexico and Manhattan and Oakland, places Berlin knew well. Berlin’s father worked in the mine business, and the struggling family moved often when she was young. When her father took a job in Chile, they lived in Santiago for a while in relative luxury.

She attended college at the University of New Mexico and married three times, once to a sculptor and twice to jazz musicians. She lived with these men all over the map. She learned to think early about what to take and what to leave in life; about how to inhabit places you want to go but will not be able to stay. She had four sons whom she mostly raised alone; she fought to find time for her writing.

The stories in “Evening in Paradise” mostly follow the arc of Berlin’s life. There is more of a direct through-line to follow than there was in “A Manual for Cleaning Women.” The protagonists, though seen from a variety of perspectives, are women much like herself.

One thing that makes Berlin so valuable is her gift for evoking the sweetness and earnestness of young women who fall in love (one thinks that being a good wife is handing her husband his coffee handle first, while she grasps the hot side) and then catching them at that moment when things begin to turn, when the trees of their being are forced to grow bark.

Her women are impulsive; they’re leapers; they’re in pursuit of wildness, of ravishment; they want to crack their men open like crabs and pull out the meat. Every pore of their beings is open. They want, in Elizabeth Hardwick’s phrase, “love and alcohol and the clothes on the floor." But the men don’t talk to them. Or are always away working. Or have heroin habits. Her women, weary from the day’s hassle, learn to fend for themselves.

Berlin is so stealthily funny. At the worst moment in one woman’s life, with police at her dinner table, a goat and a pony thrust their heads through an open window as if to say, “Hey.” She writes about a cat that liked to push a telephone off its hook just so it could hear a voice say the phone is off the hook. There’s a riff about how there’s no way anyone named Cokie — I assume she is talking about Cokie Roberts — is middle-class person from Ohio. Her women find solace in trees and flowers. They plant things in thin topsoil; they only rarely get to watch them grow. They find solace, too, in the radio and in records and in their husbands’ jam sessions. There’s so much music in Berlin’s stories, from the “Ceilito Lindo” guitar players of her youth to her own music: Buddy Holly, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, the bossa novas of Astrud Gilberto.

Berlin’s mothers sing to their children: “Texarkana Baby,” “The Red River Valley.” Sometimes the sounds are circumambient. In a story called “Sombra," she writes: “Music came from everywhere, not transistors walking down city streets, but faraway mariachis, a bolero on a radio in the kitchen, the whistle of the knife sharpener, an organ grinder, workmen singing from a scaffold." Berlin probably deserved a Pulitzer Prize; she definitely deserved, to borrow the name of a Waylon Jennings song, a Wurlitzer Prize, for all the coins she drops into our mental jukeboxes. She has an instinctive access to the ways music can both provoke and fortify.

“There are things people just don’t talk about,” Berlin wrote in a story titled “Dust to Dust.” “I don’t mean the hard things, like love, but the awkward ones, like how funerals are fun sometimes or how it’s exciting to watch buildings burning.” She managed to write, beautifully, about the hard and the awkward things.

Nothing came easily to her. In a letter collected in “Welcome Home,” Berlin describes an uncomfortable lunch in 1960 with her agent, whom she calls “a goddamn pimp,” and a lecherous book editor from a major house. They’re at the Algonquin. The men get trashed on bourbon.

On their way out, the editor murmurs that Berlin is as lovely as her writing. Her agent adds, out of the editor’s earshot, “Well, you’ve cinched that, honey.” Berlin is outraged. She writes, “The only move short of kicking him into the palm pot was simply to say to hell with him, which I easily did.”

During her lifetime she was not published by that major house, or any other. She is now.

Publication notes:

‘Evening in Paradise: More Stories’

By Lucia Berlin

244 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.

‘Welcome Home: A Memoir With Selected Photographs and Letters’

By Lucia Berlin

Edited and with a foreword by Jeff Berlin

Illustrated. 162 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.