Lucia Berlin’s posthumous collection, ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women,’ is visceral and beautifully real

Heather Scott Partington

Four stars

A Manual for Cleaning Women By Lucia Berlin, $26.

Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women is sure to be lauded as a model of short-story writing. Berlin’s skill in telling these witty, grease- and blood-smudged tales means they are great reads—quick moments of suffering and weird shared joy. They draw attention to the dark corners and rusted-out cars where real life happens in its ugly glory.

Berlin worked in emergency rooms and did some time in rehab. She fought and won a battle with alcoholism and worked as a cleaning woman, a teacher and a professor before her death in 2004. She was real people, and so are her characters. This posthumous collection, 43 of her previously published short stories, is the world’s chance to see beauty in rusted ruins. A Manual for Cleaning Women reflects a masterful view of the world, a celebration of art in the ordinary.

Berlin’s stories are a delightful tumble of brand names, fragments of foreign language and visceral images. Her characters see the world in beautiful metaphors drawn from real life. “Whenever Ter read a book, rarely—” the narrator says in the title story, “he would rip each page off and throw it away. I would come home, to where the windows were always open and broken and the whole room would be swirling with pages, like Safeway lot pigeons.”

Never one to miss a beautiful pedestrian image, Berlin’s characters draw connections to the things they touch. Through her colorful style in these semi-linked stories, we come to know a cadre of personalities, but most important is a cohesive semi-autobiographical narrator. Sometimes she’s the bystander, observing others down on their luck, and sometimes she’s the hapless protagonist, the mother unable to pull herself away from a bottle to be with her children. Each time Berlin presents a view of humanity and family that’s both heart-warming and raw.

Her stories take place in California, Colorado and Mexico, in schools, hospitals and dive shops. Her characters often work jobs where they serve others, or are reliant on the help of others. Whether she’s describing a young girl’s fish-out-of water experience in Catholic school or the time a grandfather asks his granddaughter to pull all of his teeth at once, Berlin knows how to keep the reader turning the page. These are stories you won’t forget, whether for their haunting subject matter or the fact that Berlin can change everything in an instant. This collection is a hell of a great read drawn from a hell of a hard life.

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