RHC 2017: A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a collection of stories by a woman. 

The summer after my junior year of high school, I attended a six week program called Arkansas Governor’s School. For those not in the know, AGS was a Bill Clinton initiative back before our state politics became an international embarrassment, and was the subject of a fantastically pearl-clutchy piece of propaganda called The Guiding Hand, which I unfortunately couldn’t find on YouTube. I did, however, find a transcript. Here’s a sample:

Rather than students learning how much two and two equals, they would be asked what they feel about two plus two.  Right now we have a move going on in our Arkansas Schools called restructuring where they are trying to move away from more objective substantive learning to this subjective area of feelings and, I think, ultimately political correctness.

Heaven forbid!

Anyway, AGS is a great program and I thoroughly welcomed my leftist brain washing. I attended as a language arts student and specialized in fiction. As part of my liberal indoctrination training, my group read a couple of short stories from Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. And they positively set my hair on fire.

Now, at the age of seventeen, I did not have any remotely relevant experience that should have made that collection so powerfully personally resonant, but damn it, it was. It also indirectly introduced me to The Velvet Underground. The image of me driving my little black Neon around howling along with Lou Reed that I guess I just don’t know is, in retrospect, kind of cringe-inducing and hilarious. But I will say this for myself – I did truly feel my feelings, as misdirected, out of proportion, and completely unmoored from reality as they were.

Anyway. Jesus’ Son stands out in my life as a reader, because it made me feel the raw power of the right words in a way that no poem or story had before. It was also my true introduction to short fiction, outside of standard English class stuff like “Young Goodman Brown” (no offense intended, Mr. Hawthorne, as witnessed by this bunch of chrysanthemums I picked for you to overtly symbolize my friendly intentions). When I got back from AGS, I started devouring short stories – T.C. Boyle, William Trevor, Angela Carter, Lorrie Moore, Raymond Carver. I also read a collection of Vladimir Nabokov’s book of short stories, which was my first full on engagement with the writer who I’ll generally claim as my favorite if you push me into a corner over it.

And I started writing “short stories” of my own. These were, for the most part, brief bursts of very, very loosely disguised journal writing meant to present the Anne-character in the best possible though generally (and melodramatically and implausibly) tragic light. I did go on to take several creative writing workshops in college, and managed a few efforts that didn’t involve passive introvert characters trying to make their way in a world that Just Didn’t Understand Them – at least enough of an effort to understand that short stories are incredibly easy to write and incredibly difficult to write well.

So, these stories by Lucia Berlin. THESE STORIES. I felt that same spinal shock reading some of these that I’d felt with Jesus’ Son back in 1999. They’re big hearted, dark humored, and all over the map. Some border on horror’s territory (in one a child is compelled to wrench out all of her drunk grandfather’s teeth), some are heartbreaking (a visit to an across-the-border Mexican abortion clinic), some are funny (a young woman befriends an older couple, thinking she’s bringing light to their lonely sunset years, only to discover that they’ve been concerned for her and her lack of anything else to do). Settings include laundromats, rehab clinics, Catholic schools, emergency rooms, Chilean American ex-pat enclaves, Central American deep sea divers’ shops. Commonalities emerge – a drunk but kind Uncle John, a drunk and terrible grandfather, a drunk and confused narrator. A difficult, suicidal mother, a sister dying of cancer.

Almost every story includes a very, very loosely disguised Lucia character, often named Lucia. She gets away with it! In fact, the two first person stories that included a non-obviously-Lucia voice were my least favorite in the collection. Both of these use a dual narrator structure, and the non-Lucia voice (a lawyer in one, a Latina teenage mother in the other) feels forced. I don’t know if that’s the writing itself or if it’s just the context, but they stuck out in an ungraceful way for me.

Her language crackles. It’s some of the most precise writing I’ve ever read. I can’t recommend this collection highly enough. It’s sitting right next to Denis Johnson on my shelf.

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