How An Evening in Paradise got on The Lois Level
I’d never heard of Lucia Berlin, but I ran across her book A Manual for Cleaning Women on LitHub’s list of best short story collections of the decade a few months ago. I got a copy of A Manual for Cleaning Women at that time from the library, but I couldn’t get into it and moved on to other things. I guess sometimes it’s a case of right book, wrong time.
Recently, while researching the post on Reading Alaska, I ran across her again since she was born in Juneau, Alaska. I was a bit surprised because Berlin seemed to have nothing to with Alaska, so I looked her up again.
To my surprise, her second posthumous collection, Evening in Paradise, was available from the Overdrive collection from one of my libraries (this is during the Coronavirus quarantine). I started this collection, and got drawn in.
An Evening In Paradise
What a great name for a book. Doesn’t it make you want to read it?
Berlin definitely had no input into the way these stories was put together since Evening in Paradise appeared more than a decade after her demise. The ordering seems very deliberate. And in a way, it is not.
So she didn’t choose the name of this collection, but she did write a short story called “An Evening in Paradise”…more on that below.
The collection begins with stories with child protoganists. The first one is only seven. It didn’t take long for me to get a sense of continuity throughout the stories. Although the first few stories are set in different places, the protagonist is slightly older in each, and there are details that reoccur. So at times, the collection almost becomes an episodic novel…or anyway, an episodic novel on drugs. Or perhaps in a dream landscape.
While I noticed that there were related details and settings, the point of view changes from story to story…so sometimes the character I came to associate with “Lucia” was the narrator, and sometimes she was another character in the story. Sometimes, she doesn’t appear at all. Names are reused frequently, but again, in such a way that it’s not clear if they are the same or different. So, as it is in a dream, you have to just know. You have to recognize some essential part, kind of accept it (or not) and go on from there.
Anyway, like dreams (if I haven’t beaten it to death by now), each story stands alone. You don’t need to read them in order.
Most of the stories are domestic, focusing on female characters in various places and stages of their relationships, but at about the 80% mark (you know these things when you read on Kindle), the stories come to resemble travel essays set in Paris and Mexico. But still, from the details, there is always a character who could be the same woman. If you see it.
It took me a while to get the flow of these stories and to stop being bothered by being jerked around from one point of view to another. I kept thinking I was being a poor reader (I don’t have a head for details such as names), so I was sort of mentally battling the impulse to either immerse myself in the story I was reading while fighting the impulse to flip back and line up all the names. After giving in and flipping to the END of the book, where there was a helpful short biography of Berlin, I decided that I understood what was happening and went on with my reading.
So my advice: don’t fight it. Just go with it.
Also, if you don’t speak Spanish, you might want to read this on Kindle or at least have a translation app handy. My school Spanish got me through most of it, but I did need to look a few words up.
The Stories You Shouldn’t Skip
“An Evening in Paradise”
This is one of the few stories that does not have a “Lucia” charater: maybe that’s it stood out to me. The protagonist of the story is Hernan(accent), who is the manager of a bar in Puerta Villarta. The action of the story centers on one evening when the film The Night of the Iguana is being made there, and Ava Gardner, John Huston, Elizabeth Taylor, and Richard Burton all make appearances in the background. Yet the center of the story isn’t the transients, it’s the people who live there.
This story struck me as a literary cross between Mayhew Bergman’s stories Almost Famous and an episode of Fantasy Island or The Love Boat (which usually cruised to Puerta Villarta, ironically.
2. “La Barca de la Ilusión”
Well, you know if there is an addict involved, things are probably not going to go well. That’s what happens here. This story appears in the collection right after “An Evening in Paradise”, and both stories feature a character named Vincent who is a drug dealer. In case the first story left you with the illusion that drug dealers aren’t such bad people and are the same as those who sell alcohol, read on.
Love the mother in this story…sadly, no matter how tough you are, you just can’t win against some obstacles.
3. “The Pony Bar”
This one is a short short, and it sneaks up on you near the end when you have gotten used to the long, meandering stories. I had to reread the thing twice before remembered that a screw is both a noun and a verb, and both have multiple meanings.
Luckily, you can read this story 3 or 4 times in less time than it usually takes you to get through one. You’re going to need to.
Sombra means shade. It’s one of the few Spanish words Berlin manages to explain in the whole book.
In the story that precedes it “Lost in the Louvre”, the narrator quotes Stephan Crane by saying this about death: “It isn’t bad. You feel sleepy—and you don’t care. Just a little dreamy anxiety about which world you’re really in, that’s all.”
Sounds pretty good, but it doesn’t sound like Stephan Crane went in the same way as the dying character in “Sombra”. I’ll choose the latter.
Memoir: Welcome Home
Something I would want to read because this lady had one heck of an interesting life.
I would go for the short stories first so you don’t already know the backstory when you read this.
A Manual for Cleaning Women: More short stories
Also don’t miss A Manual for Cleaning Women, Berlin’s first posthumous collection.
Berlin struggled with both alcoholism and her writing career for most of her life, and she was also a single parent, so she worked a wide variety of jobs to keep food on the table…. A side benefit is that she she was paying attention and used what she saw in these stories.
About the Cover Photo