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A New Story Collection and a Memoir by Lucia Berlin, Patron Saint of Soulful Cool

Category: Art & Culture,Books

Some lives seem predestined to be shaped into stories, and Berlin’s contained infinite chapters. She spent her childhood in small mining towns across the Northwest, where her father worked as an engineer. Then, while he served in World War II, she and her mother went down to Texas. When she was 13, her father moved the family to Santiago, Chile. She attended the University of New Mexico, then zigzagged from New York to California, through alcoholism and detox centers, through odd jobs (substitute teacher, hospital ward clerk, phone operator, cleaning woman), through three husbands and four sons and many other men, for whom she had a weakness nearly as great as that for drinking. Though her first collection didn’t appear until she was 45, she began to write in earnest in her early 20s. Homesick for Chile, she wrote to remember, until each flower appeared in front of her. Toward the end of her life, as a writing instructor in Colorado, she was interviewed by two students for a school assignment. They asked her if she wrote for joy. She told them, “I just wrote to — to go home.”

The vast majority of Berlin’s stories include a description of a house, as rich and textured as if it were a character. It’s no surprise, then, that when she sat down to write her memoir, she organized her material by place (and no surprise, either, that she omitted the less sensual truth of dates and years). The memoir ends midsentence, unfinished at the time of her death. The rest of the book consists of letters, most to her friend and mentor the Black Mountain poet Ed Dorn, and a list titled “The Trouble With All the Houses I’ve Lived In.” Written in the late 1980s, in terse staccato prose, that list is the skeleton key to the rest of her work. It begins: “Juneau, Alaska — Avalanche the day I was born, wiped out a third of town. / Deerlodge, Montana — No heat, just the oven. Earthquake.” The list picks up speed and pathos as it goes on: “Paper-thin walls. Mama crying crying”; “Dust storms. Old man died in the apple orchard”; “Pump broke, well went dry, wiring blew, chickens died, rabbits died, termites, goat broke leg. Shot her”; “I burned it down”; “Eight people, two bedrooms. Toilet overflowed. Sewer line broke. Evicted”; “Police. Fire next door. Evicted”; It ends in Oakland, with these words: “No catastrophe. So far.”

The list of houses is the bare-knuckled spine holding together a body of work in which each story shows you a single detail, in high definition. In Berlin’s stories, her alter ego changes names — Maya, Laura, Maggie — but the scattershot particulars of her life hold constant. In “La Barca de la Ilusión,” Maya attempts to keep Buzz (an analogue for Buddy Berlin, her third husband and great love) away from the vicious heroin dealers who trail him through Mexico. When one shows up in their secluded paradise, Maya “didn’t speak or think. She stabbed him in the stomach with the paring knife. Blood gushed down his white sharkskin pants. He laughed at her, grabbed a rag.” The image slips a knife into the reader: Maya’s determination and helplessness laid bare. As the two men shoot up by the fire, Maya watches from the bed. The dealer pitches forward into the flames, overdosed, dead. Buzz dozes. Maya hauls the corpse into a canoe and pushes it out into the bay.

CreditAlessandra Montalto/The New York Times

In “The Wives,” the character Laura says, in passing: “I once stabbed a connection, in Yelapa. I didn’t even hurt him, really. But I felt the blade go in, saw him bleed.” The woman she is speaking to puts on a Charlie Parker record and changes the subject. In her memoir, the section on Yelapa ends: “All young, handsome ex-beach boys, smart and mean. Whispers in our garden, laughter in the dark by the datura tree.” In the list of houses, Yelapa becomes simply: “Sharks, scorpions, coconut grove — THUD THUD — three kids. Hurricane.” The knife, the inevitable tragedy of addiction, the dealer’s corpse: THUD THUD.

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