In subject and style, Lucia Berlin’s short stories could be compared to the work of Hemingway, or that of the Beats, or any number of male writers who have attempted to mythologize their domestic inadequacies, proclivity for violence, and flagrant substance abuse. To some degree, the themes are consistent. However, Berlin’s short fiction, in stark contrast, reveals how much of this canonical self-prescribed heroism is utter bullshit. Evening in Paradise, a selected collection of work throughout Berlin’s career, follows women entrapped or abandoned by monstrous men and confronts the realities of the families left behind.
In the foreword, Berlin’s first son Mark writes, “Ma wrote true stories; not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes.” These twenty-two stories do indeed read close to home, which is to say they feel like honest domestic realism, even if they tackle larger ideas about misogyny and troubled artists. Berlin is not one to glamorize the tough times of bad men, alcoholism, poor housing, and cheap labor. While there’s a nostalgic quality to the writing, Berlin doesn’t attempt to justify or valorize the imperfections of her characters.
On the sentence level, Berlin works in clear prose often relying on broad sketches of people and places. Color is everywhere; each story is given a specific palette that sets an esoteric tone. Some are vibrant pastels, others more somber. For example, in “Andado,” Berlin writes, “Rain beat down on the glass roof of the dark Mapocho railway station. Sleek trains glistened black outside. Black umbrellas, black uniformed porters vanished into white steam that hissed billowing from the trains.”
Always, the world seems to be flying by. People are going about their days, traveling to exotic locales, or fleeing from their familial obligations. Alcohol is omnipresent. Heroin is frequently sought after. Again, it’s Berlin’s relative lack of attempts to write redeemable characters that make them so believable (and, in fact, in many cases more redeemable). People come and go as they please. Any moral feelings associated with those decisions fall on the reader.
Some flash fiction is included, but these pieces feel slightly less polished than the longer work. In “The Pony Bar, Oakland,” Berlin offers a brief set up to a trite punch line, ending on “You need a screw up your ass.” Yet, the three paragraphs proceeding this jab of dialogue still contain some memorable descriptions: “Cricket in Santiago. Red parasols, green grass, white Andes. Red-and-white-striped canvas chairs at the Prince of Wales Country Club. I signed chits for lemonade, tipped the tuxedoed waiters, applauded John Wells. Perfect crack of the cricket bat.” Even if the close is less than perfect, the vivid setting still makes the story distinct.
Evening in Paradise is all the evidence anyone should need that Lucia Berlin is one of the best short story writers of her time. Across the board, Berlin’s short fiction holds an emotional timbre that is difficult to match. Her writing renders the exhaustive efforts of a day’s work commonplace and extraordinary, vibrant and unexpurgated, elated and forlorn. It’s the genuine paradise and tragedies of the everyday, unfiltered and wonderful.
Evening in Paradise
By Lucia Berlin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published November 6, 2018
Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) was the author of several short story collections, including Angels Laundromat and Homesick, and several of her previously published stories are collected together in New York Times Bestseller, A Manual For Cleaning Women.
Aram Mrjoian is a visiting assistant professor in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University, an editor-at-large at the Chicago Review of Books, an associate fiction editor at Guernica, and a 2022 Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellow. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Electric Literature, West Branch, Boulevard, Gulf Coast online, The Rumpus, The Millions, Longreads, and many other publications. Find his work at arammrjoian.com