Recently, BookBrowse sent me a copy of a short story collection by “one of America’s best kept secrets”: Lucia Berlin’s Evening In Paradise: More Stories. Berlin evokes Shirley Jackson (minus the gothic vibes) and Raymond Carver in these twenty-two stories. Most of the stories are indeed short, some are almost vignettes, which I think is ultimately part of their charm. Berlin’s prose thrusts us right into the middle as the characters navigate the precarities of place, love, and life.
There are things people just don’t talk about. I don’t mean the hard things, like love, but the awkward ones, like how funerals are fun sometimes or how it’s exciting to watch buildings burning.Lucia Berlin, “Dust to Dust,” in Evening in Paradise: More Stories
It wasn’t until A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories was published to critical acclaim in 2015, eleven years after her death, that Berlin gained a literary reputation. Born in 1936, she spent her early childhood in mining towns where her father worked. After WWII she moved with her family to Santiago, Chile where she “embarked on what would become twenty-five years of a rather flamboyant existence.” She married (and divorced) three husbands, raised four children, worked as a teacher, cleaning woman, physician’s assistant, and switchboard operator, and eventually earned a master’s degree and taught creative writing. Berlin struggled with alcoholism throughout her life, but was sober from the late 1980’s until her death in 2004. Evening In Paradise, Berlin’s second posthumously published short story collection, further solidifies her place as a short story writer in league with Jackson and Carver.
The sky was filled with stars and it was as if there were so many that some were just jumping off the edge of it, tumbling and spilling into the night.Lucia Berlin, “Sometimes in Summer,” in Evening in Paradise: More Stories
Berlin’s many and varied life experiences feature prominently in her stories, which drip with her distinctive, witty voice and are filled to the brim with inescapable truths. Many of the stories are set in the stark landscape of the American southwest, although several take place in New York City, beachy Mexico, or mountainous Chile. Berlin shows us the beauty of these places (magenta sunsets and fluorescent moons) without shrinking from reality. Drying laundry, “sooty brilliant clothes flap against the rain-black buildings,” and broken bottles in a vacant lot, a “mosaic carpet of glass,” are transformed from commonplace into things of beauty.
The young women in the stories, some still teenagers and often married with children, are “determined to have a good marriage, to be a good wife.” They have expectations that being a “good wife” will lead to a successful marriage, something that many of the stories disprove in the end. One pragmatic young woman, thinking about her future, supposes that her husband “would probably leave me for one of his students and I’d be devastated but then would go back to school and when I was fifty I’d finally do things I wanted to do, but I would be tired.”
Her middle-aged women are more experienced, more jaded, but more sure of themselves, and also much funnier. In the story “Noël. Texas. 1956,” Tiny retreats to the roof of her house sipping Jack Daniel’s in order to escape from her relatives, “terrible people.” In what is essentially a family reunion-cum-Christmas story, with family dynamics I’m sure plenty of people could relate to, Tiny uses her mini escape to reflect on her life, at one point calling her husband a “dickhead” and her daughter and niece “tar-paper floozies.” Another Christmas tale, “Noël, 1974,” features Maggie, a school teacher, single mother, and functional alcoholic. She tries to fend off a Christmas visit from her ex-sister-in-law, Zelda, but Aunt Zelda shows up anyway, “a new woman.”
She had lost seventy pounds since her divorce, had had her ears pierced and a tubal ligation. “I’m prepped for adventure!” she said and Maggie giggled, envisioning shaved private parts. Zelda was determinedly cheerful, hugging everybody and repeating things like “Far out!” and “Outta sight!”
These stories, while still poignant because of economic circumstances or interpersonal relationships, are more lighthearted and fun.
The final few stories in the collection feature older women, divorced or widowed, more alone than the other characters, but not lonely. These stories are more reflective in tone, and Berlin turns away from worldly things in order to consider memory, loss, and liberation. The women evince a solidity and presence of mind, a certainty in themselves and their place in the world, that the younger women in Berlin’s stories do not yet have.
No matter their age, all of Berlin’s female characters are decidedly individualistic. They drink and swear, have affairs, stab creeper drug dealers, and generally try to maintain their sense of self against the world. In the story “Cherry Blossom Time,” Maya, a young wife and mother, struggles against the repetitive mundanity of the everyday. She watches the postman take the same route each day, his route “timed so perfectly that for blocks at a time he would step onto the far curb exactly as the light turned red” prompting her to realize that her days too were exquisitely timed. Maya makes seemingly insignificant changes to her routine in an attempt to dispel her depression. She manages to introduce some spontaneity, however, we realize that an unchanging routine may not be the only problem. One evening her husband comes home from work and asks about her day:
“It was beautiful. We slept under the cherry blossoms.”
“Great.” David smiled.
She smiled too. “On the way home I murdered the postman.”
“Mailman,” David said, taking off his tie.
“David. Please talk to me.”
Much of our experience is unbelievable. […] Ma wrote true stories; not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes.Mark Berlin, from the forward to Evening in Paradise: More Stories
It’s easy to read the stories in Evening in Paradise as autobiographical fiction, flowing as they do in the volume from childhood to adulthood. The characters all share similar circumstances, the same names sometimes, and their stories echo one another and merge into a kind of cohesive whole where the children are innocent, the women are in turns naive, bored, jaded, self-aware, the men are “good,” or addicts, or both, and everyone is longing to escape. Berlin doesn’t offer answers to the issues her characters face, nor should she; instead she simply presents us with a scene or a sequence in a life and leaves us to identify, or not, with the characters therein.
Evening in Paradise: More Stories
by Lucia Berlin