As Elizabeth Geoghegan put it so beautifully in her piece in The Paris Review, it’s the voice that pulls you in.
Geohegan: “The moves she makes in her fiction shadow the peripatetic nature of intimate conversation, and in turn, her peripatetic life. She can transport you from the alcoholics of El Paso to the inmates of Oakland as easily as she can make you believe she was capable of loading a lethal dose into her addict husband’s syringe before going to the hospital to deliver his child. Each of her stories unfolds in such unexpected ways you nearly forget where the tale has begun. Then she suddenly brings you back and knocks the wind out of you with one of her singular last lines.”
Read the opening foreword by Lydia Davis, and you’ll have no choice but to dive into the stories and then, well, you’re hooked with that voice, especially after you reach the wickedly funny title story (the fourth).
Lydia Davis: “Lucia Berlin’s stories are electric, they buzz and crackle as the live wires touch. And in response, the reader’s mind, too, beguiled, enraptured, comes alive, all synapses firing. This is the way we like to be, when we’re reading—using our brains, feeling our hearts beat.”
And that’s precisely the feeling you get.
Writing in The New York Times, Ruth Franklin said Berlin’s stories “are the kind a woman in a Tom Waits song might tell a man she’s just met during a long humid night spent drinking in a parking lot.”
The comparisons are out there—Carver, Proust, Chekhov, Proulx. All legit. (Skip right to “Point of View” as Berlin invokes Chekhov and basically tells us how she uses “intricate detail” to make a character “believable.” This is a short story about writing; her secrets.)
For her eye on the down and out, Steinbeck is an apt comparison, too. Dust. Dirt.
Berlin’s life was wild and unsettled. Borrowing from Davis’ foreword, she was born in Alaska. Some of her youth was spent in mining camps in western United States. Then she lived with her mother’s family in El Paso, then Chile, then Mexico, Arizona, New Mexico, New York City, Boulder (Colorado), Berkeley, Los Angeles. Health problems ranged from alcoholism to double scoliosis.
Berlin’s style is blunt, gritty, unflinching, non-flashy, earnest, detailed, matter-of-fact. There’s a medical undertow to the entire collection—dentists, abortionists, hospitals, nurses. Blood is a frequent topic along with other bodily fluids. Berlin’s writing is un-sanitized, too, but it’s frequently as straightforward as a friend with, well, a story.
“I’ve worked in hospitals for years now and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the sicker the patients are the less noise they make,” goes the first line of “Temps Perdu.” How easy and inviting is that?
“It was dry at the airport, cars grinding in and out on the gravel,” says the narrator in “Electric Car, El Paso,” a funny four-page dollop. “Tumbleweeds caught in the fence. Asphalt, metal, a haze of dusty dancing atoms that reflected dazzling from the wings and windows of the airplanes. People in cars around us were eating sloppy things. Watermelons, pomegranates, bruised bananas.”
The stories often feature people who try new things, step into other worlds, and stretch their boundaries. Her characters are not fodder for the fates, however. They make choices. No matter the narrator or main character, the senses are always on fire, taking in the world.
In “Bluebonnets,” one of the few stories told in third person, a teacher named Maria heads off from Oakland to Texas to spend time with a writer whose work she had translated into Spanish. A fling of sorts; she’s not sure. The man, Dixon, stops on their drive out into the country and makes her wait while he gets a haircut. “The absence of noise was what was so evocative of her childhood, of another era. No sirens, no traffic, no radios. A horsefly buzzed against the window, snip of scissors, the rhythm of the two men’s voices, an electric fan with dirty ribbons flying rustled old magazines. The barber ignored her, not out of rudeness but from courtesy.”
She’s a reporter (or memoirist) who takes stark, unsentimental moments and finds the telling image that reveals how her characters feel, what they’re thinking. Reading these stories, you get the feeling that Berlin never had her brain turned off or her eyes closed. Berlin is utterly alive, despite all the poverty-stricken bleakness or alcoholism or death, and her characters are, too. They see things, hear things, and document their surroundings as they confront some terribly real scenario.
In “Todo Luna, Todo Año,” a Spanish teacher named Eloise Gore takes her solo trip three years after the death of her husband. Eloise is about to wake up, in a very big way, but first she takes in her surroundings, feeling very much out of place.
“She forced herself to relax, to enjoy langostinos broiled in garlic. Mariachis were strolling from table to table, passed hers by when they saw her frozen expression. Sabor a ti. The taste of you. Imagine an American song about how somebody tasted? Everything in Mexico tasted. Vivid garlic, cilantro, lime. The smells were vivid. Not the flowers, they didn’t smell at all. But the sea, the pleasant smell of decaying jungle. Rancid odor of the pigskin chairs, kerosene-waxed tiles, candles.”
Later, in her room, Eloise works working on translating a poem. Berlin tumbles together her fine-tuning of the translation with all that is going on around her. And the two strands intertwine, exterior and interior.
“In her room she looked at the poem again. Thus all life arrives / at the place of its quietude. No. And not life, anyway, the word is sangre, blood, all that pulsates and flows. The lamp was too dim, bugs clattered into the shade. As she shut off her light the music began again in the bar. Insistent thud of the bass. Her heart beat, was beating. Sangre.”
Lucia Berlin stories pulsate and flow, yes, with sangre and heart.