Creative Writing

Published on November 23rd, 2015 | by Rafael Alvarez


A Manual For Cleaning Women Lucia Berlin & the American Short Story: Part Two

Their agate eyes opened to reflect a pinpoint of dazzle, closed again…”


manual cleaningThe description of the eyes of cranes at dawn – not unlike the lights of an especially charismatic 10th grader, the kid who knows things – is from the Lucia Berlin story “Teenage Punk,” collected in the late writer’s recently published magnum opus: A Manual for Cleaning Women.

It was briefly on the indie bestseller list,” said Richard Howorth, owner of Oxford’s Square Books, noting that the store has carried the collection since it was released by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in August.

[And I erroneously identified in my last column as a contender for this year’s Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, which, though worthy, is not.]  

Teenage Punk” is one of the tales that Berlin’s son Dan said cut close to the bone, as do so many of the stories in this collection whether you knew the author – as the writer Elizabeth Geoghegan did – or discovered her yesterday.

In a Paris Review remembrance published the month of the release of Cleaning Women, Geoghegan wrote: “[Berlin’s] stories, populated with alcoholics and addicts, are rendered with an empathy, disgust, and ruthless wit that echo the devastating circumstances of her own life.”

Which apparently includes the real-life pain-in-the-ass upon whom the character of Jesse was based in “Teenage Punk.” Reluctant to read too much into it on the record, Dan Berlin said of his mother’s accomplishment: “It’s amazing work and the work should be the focus.”

When I posted part one of the Berlin columns last month – noting the wide praise and welcome it was receiving – I got a few nibbles from people living between the hard covers of literary fiction.

[It was Auden who said, “Thank God for books as an alternative to conversation.”]

One response was from Devon Frick, 42, publisher of an Onion-styled website called Lankville Daily News.Lucia Berlin

Of A Manual for Cleaning Women and “Teenage Punk” in particular, Frick said: “What makes the story so effective is how much is communicated despite the succinctness of only a few pages. We get a concise portrait of the disintegration of a marriage in step with the disintegration of a social order in step with the disintegration of an old house, all in less than a page.”

And then all this is cast aside by the beauty of a rare natural event as if Berlin says, “This is what matters. It’s an uncommonly rare piece– I can’t recall reading anything quite like it.”

Nor can I, although Berlin’s work is strangely reminiscent of Roberto Bolano [1953-2003] despite Lucia’’s brevity and the Chilean’s narratives that go on and on, as though the true tale were hidden in the digressions.   

Lucia Berlin lived the writer’s life while working a host of menial jobs to make a living. She then landed at the University of Colorado in Boulder and taught there from 1994-2000. The students Berlin inspired there have helped keep her work before the reading public since her death in 2004.

Here’s hoping someone stumbles upon a trunk of unpublished Berlin manuscripts and a 21st century Max Perkins is on hand to shepherd them to print. Until then, A Manual for Cleaning Women will ably hold its own upon any shelf. The Local Voice Ligature

Rafael Alvarez can be reached via

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About the Author

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter, short story writer & screenwriter based in Baltimore. He has been visiting & writing about Mississippi since 1984. A former staff writer for HBO's "The Wire," his new book is a collection of short fiction called "Tales From the Holy Land."

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