Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women

Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women. Picador paperback 2016. First published 2015.

Lucia Berlin had an eventful life. Born in Alaska in 1936, she travelled extensively in the USA in her youth because of her mining engineer father’s work; eventually they moved to Chile. She married three times and had four sons, continuing her peripatetic existence, living mostly in the American southwest, California and in Mexico, with spells in New York City, working at menial jobs (many stories like the title one give rueful insight into how a spirited, intelligent woman survived the hardship) to support her family and her drinking. An alcoholic until the early 90s, she then began a new career in teaching creative writing. She died in 2004; her literary reputation only took off with the first publication of this collection.

This motley life is reflected in this collection, which in some ways reads as an embellished auto-fiction. Her female protagonists are usually called some variant of Lucia, or Carlotta, and their experiences mirror Berlin’s own. But she makes something richly strange out of them.

Lucia Berlin, cover of my edition of A Manual for Cleaning WomenHer subject matter is often bleak, and in that respect resembles the addiction stories of Denis Johnson. Like him she doesn’t idealise or condemn her drunks (herself included) or addicts (often the men she loved and was treated badly by). She presents the events of life – ‘fraught with peril’ as she ironically recalls her mother’s favourite phrase.

Oh yes, her mother. Her stories depict a childhood in which her mother, also alcoholic, treated Lucia coldly, even contemptuously, and her grandfather abused her and others in the household. Many of the stories tell how she and her younger sister Sally became close in later life, when their mother had died and Sally was dying of cancer. They argued and fought a lot at this time – friction that proved to them, with characteristic humour, that they must have become ‘real sisters’.

It’s that humanity and lack of bitterness that lifts these stories out of the misery memoir category. They celebrate life in all its harshness: she finds beauty in ugly places (but doesn’t disguise the surface ugliness). And she’s very funny and witty, usually in the most unexpected places and ways.

It’s never easy to convey the experience of reading a short story collection (there are 43 in this volume, some are brilliant flash fiction, just a few paragraphs long, most of them published in small magazines from the 60s onwards; some thirty more have just been published), and this one is so varied in tone and range that all I feel I can do is to give some more or less randomly chosen passages in the hope that some of the uniqueness of this gifted writer comes across.

The voice full of oblique humour is one of the first qualities  I’d commend to you. She has that capacity to buttonhole you and keep you attentive as if she were sitting beside you, chatting, reminiscing, probably smoking, a glass of Jim Beam in her hand: ‘Wait. Let me explain…’ begins one early story. Here’s the beginning of another:

Got into Albuquerque from Baton Rouge. It was about two in the morning. Whipping wind. That’s what the wind does in Albuquerque. I hung out at the Greyhound station until a cabdriver showed up who had so many prison tattoos I figured I could score and he’d tell me where to stay.

Economy of style is an overused phrase for writers’ technique, but look how much she packs into those few lines. The omission of a subject in the opening sentence, of a finite verb in the third, the brevity and clipped syntax, as if she’s thinking faster than she can write. Those resonant place names. But these are clearly crafted sentences with cadences and sonorities all her own – it’s such a distinctive voice, right down to that rueful reference to being pleased her cabdriver is an ex-con because he’ll know where to score drugs and flop out afterwards.

In the next paragraph this colloquial voice continues:

All this happened many years ago or I couldn’t even be talking about it.

And then she ends up in a grim desert detox unit.

Humour: this is her account of one of her clients in the title story – she breaks her own rule and cleans the house of friends:

I don’t make much money with them because I don’t charge by the hour, no carfare. No lunch for sure. I really work hard. But I sit around a lot, stay very late. I smoke and read The New York Times, porno books, How to Build a Patio Roof.

Such random lists, contradictions and non sequiturs abound, delightfully. Grimness and suffering are always lightened by these bizarre detail which seem to say, That happened, but then so did this.

This is from ‘Teenage Punk’: recently divorced, she’s living in a New Mexico house with ‘leaky roof’ and ‘burned-out pump’, but, with typical delight in the natural world, takes her kids and their eponymous drifter friend to watch the arrival of beautiful cranes that come to feed nearby:

We crossed the log above the slow dark irrigation ditch, over to the clear ditch where we lay on our stomachs, silent as guerrillas. I know, I romanticize everything.

The following description of the birds is radiant and graceful.

Endings of her stories are as vivid as the openings. One of her detox stories, ‘Step’, closes with an account of a boxing match the inmates are watching on TV. The defeated fighter sinks, one knee to the canvas:

Briefly, like a Catholic leaving a pew. The slightest deference that meant the fight was over; he had lost. Carlotta whispered,

“God, please help me.”


I could quote like this from pretty much every story, but will end with ‘A Love Affair’, which is about her job as a doctor’s assistant. One of her tasks was to assist with gynaecological examinations and tests conducted by the doctor. She was to get the patient in the right (highly undignified) position in the stirrups and then was ‘supposed to get the women to relax’. She was surely good at this: ‘That was easy, the chatting part.’

The doctor would arrive, a ‘painfully shy man with a serious tremor of his hands that occasionally manifested itself.’ He’d switch on his headlamp, take his swab (which he waved with cheerful incongruity from the narrator ‘like a baton’):

At last his head emerged with the stick, now a dizzy metronome aimed at my waiting slide. I still drank in those days, so my hand, holding the slide, shook visibly as it tried to meet his. But in a nervous up-and-down tremble. His was back and forth. Slap, at last.

Surely a male writer couldn’t make such a scene so hilarious and yet sympathetic to the women involved: their world is so absurdly skewed against them. That’s Lucia Berlin – those last three words.




A review of James Salter, ‘All That Is’: Opera and Tortoises

The English edition (from the Guardian website)

The English edition published by Picador (from the Guardian website)


I’ve been an admirer of the literary works of James Salter for some time.  I began with A Sport and a Pastime (1967), about a passionate affair in 1950s France.  Light Years (1975) traces the decline of a marriage.  In both novels, the style is a mix of Hemingway’s  concision, blended with baroque poeticism.  In his latest novel (his first in over thirty years, though he has published short fiction, memoirs and non-fiction in that time) that was published this spring in his 87th year, Salter has largely reduced the prose voltage to suit the protagonist.

A Sport aap cover via Millions

Philip Bowman, born like Salter in New Jersey in 1925, is introduced in chapter one as a young naval officer heading for Okinawa towards the end of World War II; here’s the opening sentence: ‘All night in darkness the water sped past’.  No apparent attempt to create a jaw-droppingly memorable line.  But that sentence is typical of what follows: the two foregrounded adverbial phrases emphasise the long, terrifyingly inexorable voyage to potential oblivion for the crew.  By making the water the agent of the verb, there’s a slightly skewed perception introduced, for it is the ship which is speeding Bowman to his destiny.  This displaced or strangely angled point of view is appropriate for the initially naive Bowman, a bruised soul with a quiet, almost innocent approach to life in the early chapters.

In that sense this is a bildungsroman: Bowman at the novel’s end is in his 60s, at ease in exalted literary circles, no longer entirely bemused by the ways and wiles of women, sexually confident (though emotionally scarred by divorce, betrayal and abandonment by previous partners).

There isn’t much of a plot in the conventional sense; what we get is numerous episodes related across 31 short chapters, many of which condense numerous scenes and cameo performances from a large cast of minor characters.  Drifting almost invisibly through most of these scenes is the increasingly confident figure of Bowman, whose capacity and appetite for life are never entirely diminished by the frequent disappointments it puts in his way.  He graduates from Harvard and enters unobtrusively into the ostensibly gentlemanly pre-war, pre-corporate sphere of publishing.  He spends most of the novel as an editor for the house owned by Robert Baum and his finance partner.  Baum has a caustic awareness of the vagaries of best-sellerdom: on his wall is a framed letter from a colleague editor, describing an ‘utterly worthless’ book he’d rejected – ‘It sold two hundred thousand copies’, says Baum; ‘I keep it there as a reminder’.

Against this backdrop of the conflicted sensibilities of the editors, working in the shark-tank of commercial publishing (the idea, says Baum, is to ‘pay little and sell a truckful’ – though he describes his firm as ‘literary’ in principle), Bowman’s character fits neatly.  Salter is mostly interested, though, in his amorous life.  He falls ill-advisedly for a girl called Vivian from landed Virginia society; she’s all horse-riding, hunting and money, but Bowman is smitten by ‘a riveting face that God had stamped with the simple answer to life’.  I know I began by saying he’d toned down the flashy style, but these touches of Scott Fitzgerald-like grandeur still bedeck the narrative.  The clash of cultures and humiliating denouement of this marriage show American class consciousness in all its raw nastiness. 

Bowman’s judgement in women, one would expect, can only improve.  It does, but not straight away.


Photo: Guernica online magazine

James Salter.  Photo: Guernica online magazine


As he ages he goes through several more intense, scarring affairs.  Each time the woman seems to be destined to be the love of his life; each time love eludes him.  The cruel betrayal towards the end of the novel is matched by Bowman’s transgressive, callous revenge (in a chapter called, with chilling cruelty, ‘Forgiveness’).  I was about to say this response of his was uncharacteristic, but it’s not; we don’t really get to know what motivates Bowman’s actions – he’s not depicted as self-aware, though his musings on life, death and love are frequently presented.

As the novel closes he seems to have found a muted but triumphant peace; he still believes in love, but accepts it’s ‘now likely to be too late’.  But here one of my reservations about the novel becomes felt: some readers have found Salter’s fiction tends towards male-oriented, even chauvinistic portrayals of relationships.  In All That Is there is an unedifying preoccupation with how women look, and how their looks fade as they age, while Bowman continues to be praised by women right through to his 60s for his attractiveness.  He also has a slightly unsettling, voyeuristic interest in women much younger than himself.  His final partner is thirty years younger than he is; she’s ‘desirable, life-giving’ and had ‘slipped through the net, the fruit that had fallen to the ground’ – an unfortunate set of metaphors.

On the other hand, Salter is quoted in Numero Cinq magazine as saying: ‘I deem as heroic those who have the harder task, face it unflinchingly and live. In this world women do that.’

Salter is noted for the carnality and sex in his novels, and there’s some of this in All That Is.  Usually it’s not likely to qualify him for the Bad Sex literary award; it’s difficult to avoid prurience or cliché in such scenes, but he mostly succeeds in surprising us with his mix of lyricism and wry humour; in one such moment he describes Eddins with his new lover:

The bold, Assyrian parts of him were brushing her lips, stifling her moans.  Afterwards they slept like thieves…He loved everything, her small navel, her loose dark hair, her feet with their long, naked toes in the morning. Her buttocks were glorious, it was like being in a bakery, and when she cried out it was like a dying woman, one that had crawled to a shrine.

That Assyrian reference, the ‘thieves’ simile and the ‘shrine’ are clunky, but in context Salter just about gets away with it: the woman has a thing about ancient Egypt; after their first sexual encounter she says ‘in Egypt I would be your slave’.  Unfortunately there’s that slight touch of chauvinism again, the separated, appraising male gaze.

Descriptions are sparse, but when they appear they glow with life; here he writes of the Maryland coast:

On an inlet nearby he had seen a white goose that lived with the ducks there. Whenever a plane passed overhead, the goose looked up, watching and talking as he did.  He watched it all across the sky.

Salter at his best eschews fancy vocabulary and pyrotechnical imagery; this passage consists almost entirely of words of one or two syllables, more like Carver than Fitzgerald.  What distinguishes it as Salter is the curious ambiguity of the pronouns; who is talking and watching – the goose, or the man?  It turns a monochrome snapshot into an almost mystical experience.

The dialogue is often superb.  Early in his marriage to Vivian, Bowman upbraids her for her domestic negligence (another touch of sexism?):

‘Vivian, why don’t you spend a little time cleaning up the place?’

‘It’s not my ambition.’

Her use of the word, whatever that meant, annoyed him.

This isn’t a perfect novel, then; its pace is sometimes slow to the point of tedium, and the focus on such a reserved, apparently unreflecting man’s trials, repeated sexual conquests and reversals results in a narrative that isn’t always entirely successful.  The digressions into Eddins’ similarly fraught, occasionally tragic amatory life are entertaining but somehow don’t fully cohere with the rest of the novel; maybe Salter would have been better off making the slightly more vivacious Eddins his protagonist, and Bowman secondary.   But the novel is ultimately worth reading, if only for the beautiful brushstrokes in the prose (I’ve tried to quote a few here): the evocation of romantic visions in old Europe of which Salter is so fond in his other novels; the conflicting appeal of country and city life, and the tiny miniatures of the minor characters (Bowman’s genial uncle Frank; the publisher in England, Wiberg, with his ‘eighteenth-century face’) that often compress into a few words or sentences what would take lesser authors a whole chapter or novel to convey.  Here in a meeting with one of Bowman’s clients and his wife, for example, by focusing on Bowman, Salter  sketches impressionistically and tellingly his preoccupations and ambitions:

Although there was little evidence of discord between them, there must have been some, but from the pair of them Bowman felt a strong pull towards connubial life, joined life, somewhere in the country, the early morning, misty fields, the snake in the garden, tortoise in the woods.  Against that was the city with its myriad attractions, art, carnality, the amplification of desires.  It was like a tremendous opera with an infinite cast and tumultuous as well as solitary scenes.

Bowman, like the rest of us, just needs somebody to love and to love him.  Maybe his penchant for opera and tortoises explains why he has such a hard time realising that ambition.

The American cover (photo from LARB website)

The American cover (photo from LARB website)