Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin
In 2015, Lucia Berlin’s (1936-2004) posthumous collection A Manual for Cleaning Women was a sensation. FSG presented her short stories as the work of an under-recognized master and readers reveled in her lost-in-time prose. Although she never had a breakout hit in her lifetime, Berlin was steadily published throughout her career. Selections from her books from the eighties were re-released in the 90s by the estimable Black Sparrow Press, who also published major works by Paul Bowles, John Fante, and Robert Creeley, who was a friend of the author. Black Sparrow’s efforts were noble but they didn’t last: by the 2010s, Berlin had been nearly forgotten. 2015’s A Manual for Cleaning Women served as a re-revival, compiling again her greatest short fiction into a single, stellar tome.
Berlin’s life was a remarkable one: her father worked in the mining industry and moved her family to Santiago, Chile after World War II. There, Berlin led what editor Stephen Emerson calls “a flamboyant existence”: she grew up with the Chilean upper class and attended high-society balls and cotillions. In the 50s, she went to school at the University of New Mexico, where she fell in with Creeley and met other writers like Edward Dorn. She married and divorced a jazz musician, and married another. She struggled with alcoholism while her second husband struggled with a heroin addiction.
It’s a thrill to read an account of mid-century America that is so honest, raw, and unabashedly multi-cultural. It feels as if Berlin’s prescient prose had no place in the rose-tinted 50s and is better suited for now, reissued for today’s diverse and culturally-aware readers.
But lightning doesn’t strike twice on the Lucia Berlin story: while A Manual for Cleaning Women may have some rushing to pick up Evening in Paradise, her new posthumous collection of short fiction, it will not work the other way around. It’s difficult to get past the fact that none of these stories were chosen for the 2015 collection: the stories in Evening in Paradise are fine — often great — but many are borderline unremarkable and will cause newcomers to wonder what the big deal is about her.
The stories all feel autobiographical: in “La Barca de la Ilusión,” one of the collection’s highlights, Maya and her husband Buzz (a jazz musician) attempt to slip into a blissful lifestyle of hammocks and fishing in a palapa in Yelapa, Mexico. “It’s tough living in paradise,” Buzz says, but he and Maya can’t escape the habits from their life in America. Buzz’s dealer turns up to tempt him with more heroin, but Maya intervenes in the story’s terrific finale: “the fear and the desolation felt familiar to her,” she thinks as the story closes, “like coming home.”
In “The Wives,” another standout work, two exes of the same man, Max, convene for cocktails to dish about his prison stint and new wife. “She’s more of a Clinique salesgirl,” Laura tells Decca after she lights up a joint. “You know she was once Miss Redondo Beach?” As they drink and talk, Berlin skillfully shapes each woman by their dialogue and manages to transform both into unique personalities that deserve our sympathy. “There’s never been a man like him,” Decca laments at the story’s end, as, together, the two women try to recall the way Max used to touch them.
“Andado: A Gothic Romance” is sent in Chile and follows a young girl through a questionable high-society romance. “The Adobe House with a Tin Roof” follows Maya and a man named Paul (very similar to Buzz in “La Barca de la Ilusión”) as they move into a new home in New Mexico. These stories are excellent and can stand alone as independent works of fiction, perfect for the inclusion in a literary periodical.
Unfortunately, these longer works are surrounded by short pieces that feel like filler. “The Pony Bar, Oakland,” “Rainy Day,” and “Luna Nueva,” for example, are brief memories that do little as short fiction, and they rely entirely on their proximity to better stories in the collection to carry them. Even more substantive works like “The Musical Vanity Boxes,” “A Foggy Day,” and “Cherry Blossom Time” read like minimal vignettes that require consideration of Berlin’s personal narrative to grow into something more. Despite a few standout stories and the momentum of its predecessor, Evening in Paradise falls flat; of its 250 pages, only about 100 seem vital, with the rest left for completists.