Sex on the Roof
- Evening in Paradise: More Stories by Lucia Berlin
Picador, 256 pp, £14.99, November, ISBN 978 1 5098 8229 8
- Welcome Home: A Memoir with Selected Photographs by Lucia Berlin
Picador, 160 pp, £12.99, November, ISBN 978 1 5098 8234 2
There ought to be a cult, really, of teenagers with Lucia Berlin’s books in their back pockets, hair combed into black bouffants, imitating her squint against sunlight. The writers she is most directly associated with – Robert Creeley and Ed Dorn – were of the Black Mountain School, but she seems somehow to have more to do with the Beats, perhaps because she was always on the run; perhaps because of the drug addiction of her third husband, Buddy Berlin; perhaps because you can easily imagine her holding a tambourine or with her legs crossed around a bongo drum. ‘The not-so-young among the holy barbarians are not “settling down”, as the nonconformists of the past have done. Some of them are already bringing up families and they are still “beat”,’ Lawrence Lipton writes in The Holy Barbarians, a passage that always comes to mind when I see pictures of Berlin dangling her sons against various backyards, parks, untamed beaches.
The first time I read her stories I felt inexplicably lonely, and then realised it was because I wanted to have already read them a dozen times. I wished to get to the point where we were companions, where I could open the book at any page and pick up a conversation that was already ongoing. There is something withholding about the way she mixes minimalism with excess that keeps those of us with the taste for it coming back. It isn’t that we aren’t welcome, more that we aren’t necessary. It’s that the writing is more in her mind, more in her preoccupations, as if we have come into the kitchen as she was telling the story to someone else: her sister, the cleaning woman. A drink on a plastic tablecloth. It’s hard to keep the names straight; she shuffles and reshuffles them before laying them out. Her ellipses trail off like cigarette smoke, the stories carry on eternally like soap operas. They seem to continue somewhere else. Mexico, maybe, or Oakland, or the astral plane. They were the place she went to leave her body and feel no pain, and there is no real need for us to be there. She would go on telling anyway.
Berlin’s gifts are not ones you have ever tried or been told to cultivate. The details she chooses are those you have purposely eliminated, with that hitch in your ear that tells you to keep everything timeless: names of gas stations, laundromat chatter, ringworm cures. Gentian violet! She maintains the private, freaky sensuality of a child who listens for certain satisfying sounds, sniffs for certain satisfying smells, puts marbles in her mouth, has a pet percolator named Skippy, grows up to write a whole story about macadam. You think: ‘Here is a woman who really knows what it’s like to vomit. Here is someone who has drunk out of those plastic glasses with the flowers pressed inside, who huffs gasoline as she waits in line at the Shell, who has served her pretentious husband Frito pie and then had it dumped in her lap.’ She speaks from the present back into the past, post mortem, not with the distance of the doctor but the closeness of the nurse, who might take the lilies home. It’s the reason I felt so resentful at first to be shut out, because the intimacy on offer was so great.
When I was a teenager browsing thrift shops in the 1990s, it was still usual to see clothes like the ones Berlin wore in the 1950s and 1960s on the rack. They were the most tempting to me, and they absolutely reeked of an overspilled and bygone life, one I had not arrived in time to understand. Berlin’s dresses would have been beautiful, and would have also had insurmountable stains around the neck and under the arms. A cigarette burn on the skirt, a hem mended by her own hand. A stink, perhaps, of ham. I never had the courage or the style to bring them home.
Three years after the gratifying mainstream success of her selected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women, Picador has released two more books: Evening in Paradise, comprised of stories that were previously collected in editions by Black Sparrow and other small presses, and Welcome Home, a little uncut ruby of a memoir that is appearing for the first time. Left unfinished when Berlin died in 2004, it is extended to a respectable length by a selection of letters, mostly to her friends Ed and Helene Dorn. The lack of variety is puzzling (why not a few of her letters to Lydia Davis, say?) and the letters are not interesting in themselves, but they are worth reading to hear how much more herself she is in the stories. In the letters, curiously, she sounds like just anyone. She even goes through that phase where you open with salutations like ‘Hello you no good wenchy slut’, drawn for some reason in rose-garden cursive. But some constraint – perhaps of politeness, perhaps of expectation – is broken in the stories and the memoir. Her real distinction, I came to believe as I read, is of sounding always exactly like herself, which is a better interpretation of Hemingway’s ‘one true sentence’ dictum than the more literal-minded among us have ever managed.
Berlin’s biography, as we know it, is based on the few cryptic pages included almost as an afterthought to A Manual for Cleaning Women, which scoop enormous flexible arcs of life into stiff, inert and confounding sentences. (Her grandfather was ‘a prominent, but besotted, dentist’?) The more extended memories offered in Welcome Home delight and illuminate, either despite or because of the fact that nearly every line contains something we’ve seen before. Berlin was born in Juneau, Alaska, in 1936, to Ted and Mary Brown. Her father was a mining engineer, and her mother, as would be repeated over and over in the stories, was a Moynihan. The family name is significant. We are offered a picture of Lucia sucking worriedly at a bottle, not yet understanding that some days are short, some long. ‘The first word I spoke was light.’
Her impressions of her childhood in particular have the vividness of cherished old magazines. At night, in mining camps across the West, she would fall asleep listening to the party downstairs: poker chips, ice cubes, and her mother shuffling cards. Her mother’s particular Texas tang, which would elbow its way into a few later stories. Murphy beds and fireflies and the cloth-faced god of 1940s radio. A lifelong habit of getting the giggles, first because of the word ‘bosom’ and then ‘whenever I heard the song “I Ain’t Got Nobody” because my mother called my vagina my body, said never to play with it.’ Lifting the language throughout is an elegant shrug of fatalism, a conviction that we are born exactly what we are, and what we are going to be. ‘I’d lie on the grass beneath the lilac tree and breathe until I became giddy. In those days I also would spin around and around until I was so dizzy I couldn’t stand up. Maybe these were early warning signs and lilacs my first addiction.’
Smells are pervasive, as well as sounds: clunk, sizzle, hiss. These are the background elements that would persist. In Helena, Montana she learned to read. ‘I believed that Understood Betsy had been written especially for me, that somewhere there was a person who wanted to tell me about her.’ Dates would be helpful here, there, anywhere, but the lack of them adds to the dream.
The dream ended after Pearl Harbor, when her father was posted as a lieutenant on an ammunition ship in the Pacific. Her mother carted Lucia and her baby sister, Molly, by train to El Paso, where they lived with her parents. The smells in their house are described: ‘sulphur, wet dirty laundry, cigarettes, whiskey, Flit, food gone bad’. The monstrous figures of her grandparents: Dr Moynihan, a predatory alcoholic dentist, and Mamie, his complicit assistant, who read her Bible while Dr Moynihan molested Lucia and her sister, which, as the protagonist in ‘Panteón de Dolores’ muses, he must have done to their mother too. Their only real protection was the mythic and tequila-breathing Uncle John, who always knew what to say, crying out ‘this situation calls for enchiladas’ whenever things really disintegrated. He had a better handle on such situations than the Catholic Church. In a story called ‘Silence’, he snatches up Mamie’s Bible and says: ‘Read it over, Ma. You got it wrong, the part about turning the other cheek. That don’t mean when somebody hurts a child.’ Still, the protection of Uncle John is no protection against growing up to be like Uncle John, an alcoholic, a born Moynihan.
The first letter in Welcome Home is from Lucia’s father, who writes hoping that, ‘though we may live on a mountain peak one year and in a black canyon the next, that our beautiful house will be built in our hearts’. He must have sensed the black canyon somehow. When he returned from the war, he moved the family first to Patagonia and then to Santiago. ‘It seemed that moving to Chile would be a dream come true for Mama. She loved elegance and beautiful things, always wished they knew “the right people”,’ Berlin wrote in ‘Mama’:
She went out some at first but she was simply too scared. Her hair was wrong, her clothes were wrong. She bought expensive imitation antique furniture and bad paintings. She was terrified of the servants. She had a few friends that she trusted; ironically enough she played poker with Jesuit priests, but most of the time she stayed in her room. And Daddy kept her there.
‘At first he was my keeper, then he was my jailer,’ she said. He thought he was helping her, but year after year he rationed drinks to her and hid her, and never ever got her any help. We never went near her, nobody did.
Lucia herself lived the life of a debutante in Chile, where she picked up Spanish almost immediately and ate happily alone at the huge dining room table, ringing for every course. The much repeated story of Prince Aly Khan lighting her first cigarette found its punchline in ‘Angel’s Laundromat’: ‘He didn’t have a match actually.’ Here you see the first flourishing of the fact that she was one of the people who drew grace from others, who brought out their best jokes and their gallant gestures and a kind of narrative intent: I will, you will, we will. The source of this was partly her beauty but also some abstraction at the centre of her, which others wished to or felt capable of filling. Of course they were not; it was the size of thirst itself.
The crystallisation of this time in her life is a story in Evening in Paradise called ‘Andado: A Gothic Romance’. It is set up like an Angela Carter tale. A new bride is shown to her bedroom, and the bridegroom lays a hairy paw on her breast before disappearing to dress for dinner. ‘This would never happen to her again. When she grew older she would always be in control, even when being submissive. This would be the first and last time anyone took over herself.’ Lilacs and dizziness, the sweeping element of a man. ‘Andado’ climaxes not with a defloration, but with what directly precedes it:
They heard the river before they saw it, and then the clatter of Lautaro’s hooves on the wooden bridge. His ghastly shriek as the bridge gave way. They were both thrown from the Tilbury into the icy churning water. The lanterns went out, hissing. They flailed in the water, tearing off their capes, jackets. Don Andrés yelled at her to grab on to the carriage, to help unfasten the horse. Spinning spinning in the river. Lautaro neighed hysterically, kicking and biting at them as they worked on the harnesses. His hooves, rocks, the carriage banged into Laura and Don Andrés as they plunged downstream.
At the University of New Mexico Berlin ‘majored in journalism by mistake’, studied with the novelist Ramón Sender and met her first love, Lou Suarez – a 30-year-old Mexican-American sportswriter who was studying on the GI Bill. Here began a lifelong affair with having sex on the roof. She remembered this love as being ‘more wonderful than any other’, though how great could this guy have been, when their relationship ended after he pushed her out of a moving car? ‘taste in men in question???’ I wrote shriekingly in the margin.
A few months later she married Paul Suttman, a sculptor so devoted to aesthetics that he told Lucia she was asymmetrical the first time she undressed for him. (She was diagnosed with scoliosis at the age of ten.) He chose forks with only two tines, ‘so it was difficult to eat spaghetti,’ and made her sleep with her face in the pillow to correct an upturned nose. When I read that I thought: ‘I hate him. I want to slowly sink my teeth into his haunch until his symmetry suffers.’ She had one child, Mark, and soon became pregnant with another. When Suttman left, she put up an Elvis poster and presumably began sleeping with her nose out again. It never did seem to lose its initial uplift.
The night before her second son, Jeff, was born, Berlin went to hear Race Newton playing jazz piano at the Skyline Club. He came to the hospital the next morning and they were married within a few months. Their adobe house in Alameda, New Mexico, was down the road from Robert and Bobbie Creeley’s house, and this is where Lucia first met Ed Dorn, who was staying there with his wife, Helene, and their three children. Later they shared a house with the Dorns in Santa Fe, which became a hub for writers and musicians. ‘We all felt that we were part of an exciting era, for poetry and painting, jazz.’
A sculptor husband who rearranged her where she sat, a jazz pianist husband who wouldn’t speak to her. These are 1950s ironies, maybe. Enter Buddy Berlin, who played saxophone with Race. Lucia had a brief affair with him in New Mexico, which was interrupted when she and Race picked up and moved to New York. Lucia sold children’s ponchos and lived in the same building as Denise Levertov and was happy – wasn’t she? – until Buddy showed up one night with ‘a bottle of brandy and four tickets to Acapulco’. That is what, in this world, we call a gesture, and Lucia Berlin was a person on whom gestures were not wasted. The next day Race sent a telegram to Ed Dorn that read, in part, ‘lucia and kids left last nite with berlin. absolutely no warning or signs. she is irrational.’
Were there really no signs, Race? One wonders. Better to marry a heroin addict than another instructor, maybe. Genius women so often marry instructors, perhaps because their hunger to know is so great that it leads them to those who style themselves as teachers, even when they’re frauds. Jo March marrying Friedrich Bhaer was far more realistic than her marrying Laurie, I always thought. I had no problem with it, unlike most of my friends. Laurie is a bow-lipped fool, while Friedrich has a huge intelligent beard, gets down on all fours, and pretends to be an ‘effalunt’. taste in men in question???
Buddy was a tutor of a different kind – a tutor of enjoyment, aliveness, a pied piper. Flamboyantly wealthy, first from his wife Wuzza’s family money and then from a Volkswagen dealership she backed him in, one of the first in the West and so successful that it put him beyond most human cares. He took glamorous, human, emerald-eyed pictures of Lucia, the ones we know, the ones on the book covers. Ones where she is again allowed to smile. Buddy envelops the rest of the memoir, and it is here that her life becomes Technicolor again, no more subtle Acoma pots or black and white piano keys. Instead there are parrots and toy planes and floors of raked dazzling sand and heroin for him, now on and now off, and more and more drinking for her. The memoir ends with the unfinished sentence: ‘Buddy lay curled up and shaking violently on the front seat’
View the rest through the keyhole of that asterisk. There is an exemplary story in Evening in Paradise called ‘The Wives’ (based on Strindberg’s play The Stronger, which you can imagine as a vehicle for two world-class actresses rolled together in the long lax hammock that stretches between sexpot and grandmother roles), where two ex-wives speak of the same charming ex-husband with such increasing passion and nostalgia and drunkenness that at the end they begin acting out his foreplay, then he did that, then he did this, finally falling into bed together, but only to sleep. ‘That zest in him …’ Lucia wrote in Welcome Home, ‘the way he went for it, all of it. I can understand his doing drugs. I hate them for taking him from us.’ They divorced in 1967.
She swung wildly in the stories from life to life, inhabiting each with equal fullness, so that tales of ER nursing and cleaning houses are as compelling as her stories of lingering over broiled langostinos on the beach. (More, to me. Evening in Paradise, as good as it is, feels vaguer at the edges than A Manual for Cleaning Women, which clapped closed. It suffers from a relative lack of hospital stories, which often emerge as her best, where her ever present sensuality inverts into an almost unbearable physical compassion. There’s nothing in this collection like ‘My Jockey’, but then what are we, kings? How often does a ‘My Jockey’ come along? Is there any limit to our entitlement?)
The memoir section of Welcome Home concludes with a list called ‘The trouble with all the houses I’ve lived in’. There are a staggering 33 of them, some with notes like, ‘Over a ham factory – my W.H. Hudson still smells like ham 25 years later,’ and, plainly, ‘I burned it down.’ The last house was on Alcatraz Avenue in Oakland, California, and its note reads, ‘No catastrophe. So far.’ Let that detail lead the cult, then. Let us type our stories on machines that stink of our lives, so that fifty years later, readers still think of sandwiches. Bring home, finally, the reeking dress on the rack. We are human, it fits us.
Why doesn’t it read as autofiction, quite? To read Welcome Home after Evening in Paradise after A Manual for Cleaning Women is to experience Berlin as a romanesco, or the hall of mirrors scene in The Lady from Shanghai. She approaches the same material in so many different ways, in so many different stories, that you see the art in action. (Not always the art, sometimes the workshop. Sometimes it reads as fiddling or coyness.) Try this now, or try that, or let’s see what the lawyer might have to say. It is a privilege to see fiddling like that in a substantial body of work, because it sometimes shows how defter things become possible, how writers eventually arrive at the invisible moves and the lightning short cuts, the grandmaster solutions.
She notices herself, even admires herself, from the distance of other characters. Caresses her own voice, her innocence, her habit of ironing her husband’s Jockey shorts. This is not so much self-absorbed as honest: she was charming, she was lovable, she was the magnet to which most metal flies. As well as a list of houses, she could have written a list of the names she used for herself: Dolores, Maggie, Carlotta, Claudia, Maria, Maya. (How do writers find the names that are most like their own names? Are they harmonies, alibis, drag, indictments?) In the past critics would have used words like ‘womanly’, ‘gracious’, ‘a lady’ – ‘a real lady’, they would have said, despite everything.
And now, from Welcome Home, the only description of her process that matters, from a childhood reminiscence of her visits to an old prospector’s hut in Montana:
I carefully tore out pages from magazines and glued them onto the walls with flour and water paste, careful so as not to wet any of the text. The idea was to have a tight patchwork of pages all over the cabin, from floor to ceiling. All through the dark days of winter Johnson would read the walls. It was important to mix up the pages and magazines, so that page 20 might be high in a north wall and 21 on the bottom of the south wall.
I believe this was my first lesson in literature, in the infinite possibilities of creativity. What I knew for sure was that his walls were a great idea. He would have read through the magazines very quickly if the pages were consecutive. This way, since they were not in any order (and usually the previous or following page was pasted to the wall), whenever he read a page he had to invent the story that went with it, amending it sometimes when, days later, he would find a connected page on another wall. When he had exhausted the potential of his cabin he would repaper it with more pages in a similarly random order.
Berlin is telling us that you can use and reuse the raw moments, that the texture of life is to be taken seriously, that those spontaneous bubblings of experience will spark faith, belief, devotion for the same reason that springs of youth and holy fonts do: because they are cold and clear and inexhaustible, because we can drink them out of our hands. Her various stand-ins and protagonists are often accused by their literal-minded husbands of exaggerating, getting fact and fiction mixed up, but she is saying that what matters is how it feels. And do we care what is fact and what is fiction? Not particularly, because we trust her. And in the end she knew exactly what to change, as did Dr H.A. Moynihan: ‘The false teeth were a perfect replica of the teeth in Grandpa’s mouth, even the gums were an ugly, sick pale pink. The teeth were filled and cracked, some were chipped or worn away. He had changed only one tooth, one in front that he had put a gold cap on. That’s what made it a work of art, he said.’ Despite Berlin’s onomatopoeia she is not exactly a sonic or lyrical writer, her business is what the more animal senses are alert to at any given moment, often doled out in one-word sentences, so that you might be there, even though you’re not needed.
‘When I first started to write,’ she said in an interview conducted by two graduate students in 1996, ‘I was alone. My first husband had left me, I was homesick, my parents had disowned me because I had married so young and divorced. I just wrote to – to go home. It was a place to be where I felt I was safe. And so I write to fix a reality.’
The sense of humour is almost offhand. It comes clear when you read a little scene in Welcome Home featuring two men in overalls chatting with a train conductor: ‘All of them talked and laughed in a good way – not laughing at a joke or a person, but as if things about the world were funny.’ As opposed to ‘servicemen and smoke, the wrong laughter’, she notes later. Lydia Davis spoke of Berlin as being fundamentally non-catty. ‘She did not like being negative, though, about other writers – or, rather, she didn’t like being what she called “catty”. And if she slipped and said something catty she would sometimes apologise in the next letter.’
Her style is something I have puzzled over. Sometimes it reads like a really good voiceover in a road movie, from an era when they let auteurs do anything and the desert is photographed like a woman’s thigh and Harry Dean Stanton plays the grandpa. Other times it sounds translated, by someone shyer and more serious than Berlin. Sometimes it is monosyllabic – a tendency towards shorthand that seems both from the future and from the 1950s. There is a hinky flow that is almost never disrupted; her semicolons read like commas; it is the rhythm of a city, which encompasses everything from industrial belches down to twig-footed birds. There are writers who know the bus schedule and those who don’t. She aimed for clarity, directness, but clarity from strange people still sounds strange. A part of the rapture that met A Manual for Cleaning Women was a gratefulness that all along someone had been writing about this. But someone is always writing about this. The problem is in our listening. ‘I love houses, all the things they tell me, so that’s one reason I don’t mind working as a cleaning woman,’ the protagonist says in ‘Mourning’. ‘It’s just like reading a book.’
It is worth noting how unerring Berlin’s taste was. She spoke of both Chekhov and William Carlos Williams as models. Her characters read Middlemarch the way other people read Flowers in the Attic: dangling from one hand. The editor of A Manual for Cleaning Women, Stephen Emerson, describes exchanging books with her. He gave her Dreiser once and she hated it, saying he wrote like a guy. I have a soft spot for Dreiser, but it’s because half his writing is made up of descriptions of girls’ trim waists in tight suits twinkling up the steps. The only reason to read Dreiser at age 11 is to become bisexual, and Lucia was far too straight to fall for that. Or perhaps I’m talking about keeping it classy. Do you read Racine when you’re drunk? No, I read a novelisation of One Tree Hill called A Heart So True and it’s awesome, and that’s the reason I’ll never have a story in the Atlantic Monthly.
There is less to say about writers who know what to leave out. Even Davis, in her introduction to A Manual for Cleaning Women, seems somewhat at a loss, though their affinity is a given: a woman who writes a story like Davis’s ‘Mown Lawn’ is going to like a woman who writes: ‘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. The caressing twist twist of chalk on the cue.’ Berlin is correctly identifying the sounds of rightness, the snaps-together, which a short story writer must know and like if she is going to be good at endings. The problem is that if you’re a person who loves perfect sounds, bars are always full of them.
The stories are very much in the body – sometimes the body cramped or labouring or suffering, in withdrawal from its necessities, but other times lying in the sun, nearly lazy. She wrote about having babies the way she wrote about sleeping outdoors under the stars: it was something it pleased her body to do. Merciful and mammalian, dreamily ruminating over certain functions. Offering commentary in an afternoon poolside way, with cigarettes and magazines, where no one grudges the X-ray quality of her observations because the day beats down on all of us and she’s lying there half-naked too.
Berlin looks, in pictures of her holding any one of her four sons, like a tender and plausible ancestor, someone in the family slides. This is not generally true of writers, who often photograph like murderers who have just spilled hot soup on their trousers. Her smile is like new milk. Her eye make-up has been carefully applied, her earrings are turquoise inlay. (‘Angie Dickinson liked my eyeshadow. I told her it was just chalk, the kind you rub on pool cues.’) And she submits, somehow, to both the authority and admiration of the camera, which is often held by a husband. The photographs of her are always in love.
Blackouts fly through the work, absences and effacements, nights when you don’t know who you are. From time to time Berlin gets up from the table and just goes about the private ravenous business that is drinking, a business more personal even than stories. You will be reading along and wanting her more than usual because suddenly she’s not there. I turned out a Moynihan. The pull of the wildcard lineage is not really explicable to people who have not felt it, the gleeful leap towards the bad husband of obliteration, that faceless figure who shows up with a bottle of brandy and four tickets to Acapulco and says: another one, a double, I know what we should do, let’s climb up to the roof, pack your bags, we’re headed over the border. The alcohol saying, I have an idea. The anxiety of sons moving ghostly through the house, checking lights and locking doors, taking away her car keys, and all for the hundredth time.
‘What if our bodies were transparent, like a washing-machine window?’ she asks in ‘Temps Perdu’. ‘How wondrous to watch ourselves. Joggers would jog even harder, blood pumping away. Lovers would love more. God damn! Look at that old semen go! Diets would improve – kiwi fruit and strawberries, borscht with sour cream.’ You do feel clear at those times, as if anyone who looked at you could see your omnipotence. What is drinking, real drinking, but practice for leaving the body, practice for flying free of pain? Practice for getting the last good idea, a shaky and exhilarating ladder to the final real fuck on the roof?
I think I know the Moynihans, I thought as I read – the name ‘Lockwood’ being a codeword in my family for extreme difference of mind, gleeful expenditure, alcoholism, impulsiveness indistinguishable sometimes from insanity. We’re the sort of people who climb into garbage cans, sleep with the clowns we hire for our children’s birthday parties, punch elevators so hard we break them, and there’s really no explaining it. ‘Once when I was very little in the Grand Canyon there was a waitress with a huge tray of coffee in cups walking across the restaurant,’ Berlin wrote in a letter to Helene Dorn. ‘One of the cups fell and smashed on the floor and she sort of looked up at heaven and said oh hell and tossed the whole tray onto the floor and split. That is what I do all the time.’
The writer Harry Josephine Giles introduced me to the Scottish term ‘tramlined’, which preserves the stresses of ‘shitfaced’ but is better at capturing that sense of possibility that drinking opens up, the crystal-clear bleared vistas, the bursts of personal power, the Acme pulpit that pops up in front of you just as the exclamation arrives to your lips. Last Christmas Eve I got so drunk that I broke my sister’s toilet and then rolled down a snowy hill shouting, ‘Climate change!’ Tramlined.
Escaping from alcoholism has always seemed to me a matter of luck, of landing. But luck, or those-whom-god-loves, is exactly what Berlin got. She landed not in clover, but nearly in one piece, which is just as good. She stopped drinking in the late 1980s, and she stayed stopped. It was then that the litany of jobs we so love in her biography – nurse, switchboard operator, cleaning woman, clerk – ends finally with the snap-together sound of teacher.
Publishers wanted to make her famous before she could acquiesce to it – August Kleinzahler suggested once that she might only have been comfortable with fame after she was dead, and this is what was granted.[*] In her letters to Ed Dorn in 1960 there is an odd sequence where Little, Brown offers her $250 for a first option on an unfinished novel. She confessed: ‘I am so miserable. I have never been so afraid and unhappy – maybe you will see why. One is the mercantile ring of it – the business deal (which is a gas) with my stories, but with my novel it hurts that they should pay even before reading. The other is that I am committed now to write it and I am afraid.’ The novel remained unfinished.
I wonder what Berlin would have thought of the back of the US galley of Evening in Paradise, which reads, ‘national review attention / online features and profiles / women’s interest media outreach / npr and radio interviews / publication event / online advertising / social media promotion’ and on and on against the pretty marigold yellow background – all those necessary things that make a real book seem unreal. If she had taken the Little, Brown deal, would we have had a novel from her? At a fateful lunch with an editor named Oh Do Call Me Peter, he informed her that she was as lovely as her writing and she had to suppress an urge to kick him into the palm pot. Her agent, whom she referred to as a ‘goddamn pimp’, said: ‘Forget it, sign – put your face on the book and you’ll sell a million copies.’ Here are the books anyway, with her face on them. At a book fair in Helsinki, I saw hanging from the ceiling the picture Buddy took of her sleeping, a humid smiling shine all over her skin, our tender and plausible ancestor.
Still, publishing 77 stories quietly and steadily over a lifetime is not nothing. She spoke in an interview of not cultivating good publishing habits, but no doubt it was for the best that she worked in her own time, and not for money. She lived through a period when it was necessary to ask why we make art; we are living through another. In The Holy Barbarians, Lipton asks the question, ‘Why did they do it, did it do anybody any good?’ – that is, ‘Wouldn’t they have done better to join a party or sign protests and petitions against the Bomb?’ His answer: ‘When the Bomb drops it will find us writing poems, painting pictures and making music.’ Sometimes the Bomb is personal, is in your own life. Sometimes you drop it yourself. When Berlin’s dropped it did find her writing, painting, making, in one home after another, high mountains and black canyons, outside under the sky with stars rushing off the roof, and somehow safe from it all in the grand sweeping stream of what happened. Which carried her.