DECEMBER 2, 2018
IT IS HARD to read Lucia Berlin’s Evening in Paradise: More Stories, which is every bit as generous and perceptive as A Manual for Cleaning Women, and not feel some sense of frustration or exasperation at the fact that Berlin was not more widely read during her lifetime. Considered together, the two collections leave little doubt she is one of the greatest American short story writers of the 20th century. That her work went unheralded during her lifetime has numerous likely reasons: sexism, no novels (a grave sin in some publishing circles), alcoholism, and a career with smaller presses. It is a small, but worthwhile, consolation that Berlin has found a readership 10 years after her death — an imperfect and bittersweet success, not unlike many of the pieces in this latest collection. These 22 stories show her startling range and unwavering devotion to remaining open, refusing to judge any of her characters, whether delinquent, conniving, or alcoholic.
They are all trying to make it, or just trying to get by, and what a mess that creates, but it’s a mess her stories embrace wholeheartedly. In one of the most vivid sections of writing in the book, she describes the smoke pouring from a Texas smelter during summertime,
Massive billows and swirls of black smoke were rising from the smokestack high into the air tumbling and cascading with a terrible speed […] as if it were night now with foggy wisps creeping over the roofs and down alleys. The smoke thinned and danced […] Tears flowed from our eyes because of the foul sting and stink of the sulfur fumes. But as the smoke dissipated over the rest of the town it too was backlit like the glass had been by the sun and now even the smoke turned into colors. Lovely blues and greens and iridescent violet and acid green of gasoline in puddles.
What is described as picturesque and dreamy is, in fact, repulsive and extremely toxic. This contradiction reappears throughout her work, whether it’s in regard to addiction, trauma, or other conflicts, her work often highlights the strange allure and beauty of what is harmful or destructive. In this way her stories operate like the best kind of cocktail, where the liquor goes down smooth, the alcohol unnoticed until it’s felt all over.
That moment is from the collection’s second story, “Sometimes in Summer,” which centers on two children in Texas: the narrator, Lu, and her friend, Hope (not her real name). We learn early that Hope’s family is from Syria, a detail that stretches the story’s reach, making it feel wider, more encompassing. It is also the sort of specific detail that is just unexpected enough to heighten the story’s believability. That and the fact that the narrator’s name is “Lu” gives the story an autobiographical feel, further increasing the story’s “realness.” Berlin, like Karl Ove Knausgaard, James Baldwin, or Sheila Heti, is adept at seamlessly weaving the fictional with the autobiographical. Ultimately, it is a testament to her strength as a fiction writer that her work consistently feels real and true.
Later in the same story, the well-to-do, but unwelcome, Uncle Fortunatus rolls up in a “shiny black Lincoln” looking for his ex-wife. The danger is readily apparent — a stranger has come to town — but it’s also quickly undercut: “‘Electric windows,’ Hope said. He asked who lived in the house. ‘Don’t tell him,’ Hope said, but I told him, ‘Dr. Moynahan.’” We immediately trust Hope, and anytime we trust a character we’ve started to inhabit the story and bring the people there to life. It is also a good example of Berlin’s sly humor, and a telling detail. Hope’s recognition of the electric windows as a marker of distinction colors the setting and works in terms of character; we intuit immediately that most of the cars in their neighborhood must not have power windows, and so something ordinary has been made strange, has become a marker of Fortunatus’s outsider status.
Berlin’s worldliness goes beyond including diverse characters and is reflected in the scale and scope on display: while stories by contemporaries like Richard Ford and Raymond Carver rarely involve people and places outside of the United States, Berlin knew the world was wide but getting smaller and smaller. In most of these stories we find characters on the move and in transition — one story, “Itinerary,” takes place over the course of the young narrator’s first plane trip, from Chile to New Mexico, to start college. In the opening paragraph, we find a distillation of this worldview:
Were there any jet airplanes then? DC-6 from Santiago to Lima. Lima to Panama. A long night from Panama to Miami, ocean glittering. We had always made the trip by boat before, from Valparaiso to New York. The voyage took over a month. It wasn’t just the beauty of it but the crossing of oceans and continents and seasons […] a comprehension of vastness.
As is the case for most of the stories here, the promise of something new, of growth, stalls and sputters. The plane sits on the tarmac, then goes back to the airport, where the unnamed narrator makes eye contact with her mother seated at a bar. Her mother ignores her though, and she’s left to wait another hour before takeoff. From that moment the story, ostensibly a short riff on the hero’s journey, becomes fertile ground as the older narrator looks back on her childhood and her parents’ relationship. Hints of infidelity are scattered throughout but remain implicit, “so much I did not see or understand, and now it is too late.” What the story leaves us with is the visceral feeling of being haunted, and dazed, by the past.
The eponymous story, “Evening in Paradise,” is set in a bar and Berlin’s writing is looser, the narration reflecting the drunkenness and debauchery it chronicles, and yet, the prose and characterization remain incredibly precise. John Apple, seated at the bar, laments changes in Puerto Vallarta. He mutters, “No More paradise. The end of our fishy little sleeping village.” The clichéd “sleepy little fishing village” gets flipped and mixed up in the expat’s dialogue and so we see him, and the town in a more nuanced light — even “sleeping” turns out to be a pun. A few lines later, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, and others from Night of the Iguana are in town and everyone is high on one drug or another. What starts off as a story about a bar manager’s humble origins evolves into an apocryphal tale involving a townie’s failed one-night stand with Ava Gardner. Most of Berlin’s tragicomic concerns in the collection are present here: the turmoil wrought by substance abuse, issues of class and gender, who gets to move freely throughout the world, and who is stuck or locked in.
“Andado: A Gothic Romance,” is perhaps the most timely, and moving, story in the collection. Set in Chile shortly before the 1973 coup d’état, it follows Laura, an American high school freshman in Chile, and daughter of a mining engineer. She spends a long weekend with the Chilean ambassador to France, Ibañez-Grey, who, along with her father, has been working with the CIA. She admires him early in the trip but in the midst of a riding accident in a storm he rapes her. “I have ruined you and have nearly killed my best horse,” he says. It is a damning examination of patriarchy and male entitlement. Laura herself is less sure what has just transpired, and the narration slips from third person close to first person as she wonders, “Ruined? Am I ruined? For such a quick confusing moment? Will everyone know, looking at me? […] And if so many women risk being ruined maybe there is something wrong with me, that I scarcely noticed what was going on.”
Paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, Berlin’s prose is vivid and lush — a rich and tactile landscape that often overwhelms the senses while rarely feeling overwrought or florid (and when it does, it’s ironic). But perhaps above all, she is a master of sound and rhythm. Several of the stories involve musicians trying to make it, others contain references to jazz greats like Coltrane, Davis, and Parker. “The Pony Bar, Oakland,” is less than a page long, and reads as an ode to Nabokov’s opening in Lolita: “There are certain perfect particular sounds. A tennis ball, a golf ball hit just right. A fly ball in a leather glove. Lingering thud of a knockout. I get dizzy at the sound of a perfect pool break, a crisp bank shot followed by three or four muffled slides and consecutive clicks.” What these moments make clear is that she’s also a master of constraint, knowing exactly which gear, or mode, to write in at any given moment. The story works, in part, because it burns bright and then cuts out — a “flash piece” in an almost literal sense.
If there is a silver lining to the posthumous interest in her work, it’s perhaps that this collection can serve as yet another reminder for publishers and readers to seek out and support women and minority authors while they are still alive — the release this year of Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon also comes to mind. In reading these stories one gets the impression Berlin may have been able to take her lack of a wider audience in stride, or at least on some level appreciate the irony. With lesser writers it’s all too easy to imagine them stewing, railing against a society that doesn’t appreciate their genius. That seems unlikely in Berlin’s case, and it’s hard to imagine an unkind or bitter person writing as she did, if only because hers are the rare type of stories that have the potential to make us a little less bitter, and maybe even a little more kind.