Lucia Berlin: Evening in Paradise and Welcome Home

Lucia Berlin, Evening in Paradise, 2018, pubished by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Schoolteacher, dressmaker, cleaning woman, ER clerk, switchboard operator, oral historian: these were a few of the jobs that occupied Lucia Berlin.

Santiago, Chile; El Paso, TX; Albuquerque, NM; New York, NY; Oakland, CA; Boulder, CO: these were a few of the places she lived.

A sculptor. A pianist. A wealthy dilettante: the men she married and divorced.

Lucia Berlin (1936–2004) lived an ever-shifting life characterized by disruptions, reversals, and returns. This life, lacking obvious coherence, was immured in luxury and “high society” in Santiago, financial and personal woes in Oakland, and relative peace and contentment in Boulder.

Asked in an interview, published by Gargoyle magazine in 1990, about how frequent geographical changes influenced her work, she said, “I have a lot to write about!” She continued, “But there is an episodic, impressionistic quality … sort of like snap-shots or postcards.” As a reader, tracing the contours of Berlin’s life is a difficult task. Authoring it must have been more so. But perhaps Berlin’s itinerancy—geographic, vocational, and interpersonal—contributes to her most striking qualities as a writer: attention to the mutability of impressions, an appreciation and acceptance of contradictions, an acknowledgment of surprising coexistences.

Evening in Paradise, Berlin’s latest collection of short stories, and Welcome Home, her uncompleted memoir, consist of an array of contrasting, shifting, and intermingling tonalities. Stories of familial intimacy are tinged with dread; stories of violence or indignity are touched by beauty. In fictive and “factual” remembrance alike, Berlin refuses, determinedly, to let one emotional register, one way of reading a situation, dominate.

Berlin and her third husband, Buddy Berlin, are in Yelapa, Mexico in this passage from her memoir: “We all played Monopoly, ate enchiladas suizas, drank lemonade. Buddy shook violently under his towel in the sunshine.” Buddy shakes violently because he is recovering from a debilitating heroin addiction.

The pleasant and the simple—board games, food—live alongside the painful and the dark—withdrawal symptoms—which live alongside the beautiful—sunlight.

This scene is fictionalized in Evening in Paradise, with the narrator (a stand-in for Berlin) describing, before the addiction has been disclosed, a datura plant which “bloomed in a profusion of white flowers that hung heavy clumsily until night when the moonlight or starlight gave the petals an opalescent shimmer of silver and the intoxicating scent wafted everywhere.” The same datura plant, described in such lovely, poetic terms, becomes a symbol of dread in Welcome Home, when Buddy relapses and drug dealers begin to infiltrate the couple’s paradise. There are “Whispers in [the] garden, laughter in the dark by the datura tree.” The disparity between the two descriptions exemplifies Berlin’s interest in the fluctuating qualities of objects, impressions, and perceptions. Her tendency to describe one thing in many ways might arise from philosophical convictions (about ontological uncertainty, say). Objects in Berlin’s world have no fixed, inherent nature. But it often seems that this tendency is from pleasure in the power of language to turn, trick, and surprise. In “My Life Is An Open Book,” a story in Evening, a woman is observing dragonflies playing upon water in a creek when “a Spanish galleon in full sail glided right through them. An exquisitely made boat, about eighteen inches long.” Berlin has tricked us, but not without purpose. That the boat is a miniature model dawns upon us only after the preliminary, beautifully bizarre image of an enormous ship plummeting downstream flashes before us. Sudden perceptual transformations may be existentially disturbing, implying inconstancy and contradiction; others, like this one, may enthrall. Berlin validates the existence of both.

Any one of her fictional pieces could stand on its own, but she took care to pepper them with references to characters and events elaborated upon in other stories, as when, in “The Wives,” a story concerning two women drunkenly reminiscing about their failed marriages to the same man, one of the women mentions stabbing her ex-husband’s drug dealer. A scene in another story—“La Barca de la Ilusión”—comes to mind. The woman’s one-sentence allusion to the past allows the tense, foreboding tone of “La Barca” to temporarily flow into the tragicomic register of “The Wives.” Both stories consequently acquire a depth they might not have on their own.

This kind of cross-story resonance works not only in Evening in Paradise and between Evening and Welcome Home, but also spills over into stories from A Manual for Cleaning Women, the posthumous 2015 collection that sparked widespread interest in Berlin’s life and work. In A Manual is a story titled “So Long,” about a Lucia Berlin-like woman and a Buddy Berlin-like man falling in and out of love. The man’s saxophone playing, his tender charisma, and heroin use all come under discussion, though it includes little backstory. However, when an identical Buddy Berlin character appears in “La Barca de la Ilusión,” we get additional details about his youth of privilege, disaffection, and effortless talent that retrospectively illuminate the character from “So Long.” Berlin’s stories are like a cluster of finely detailed pieces of glass, each glowing with a light caught by the pieces adjacent, lending them further tonal complexity and radiance.

In the final story of Evening in Paradise, “Luna Nueva,” a woman has traveled alone to Mexico. She is floating in a beachside pool, while a new moon graces the sky, and memories of distant loved ones flow through her mind. The narrator describes how “The water in the pool reflected the lights over and over, first whole, then into dazzling fragments, then whole again.” Reading Berlin’s posthumous collections, one’s vision contracts, expands, and contracts again. The details come in to focus—the sensuous impressions, the thrills of a single story—its intersection with related ones.

The publication of Evening in Paradise and Welcome Home represents not the latest posthumous offerings from a great short story writer, but—when considered alongside 2015’s A Manual for Cleaning Women—the completion of a rich, elastic novel: the novel of Lucia Berlin’s life.



This feature originally appeared in ART PAPERS “Energy Structures” Spring/Summer 2019.

Noah Rawlings is the son of Utah Mormons. He has lived in Apex, Cary, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro, NC; and in Paris, Atlanta, and Athens, GA. He has worked as a cashier, driver, doorman, musician, baker, technical support assistant, audio engineer, teacher, tutor, and writer. He has $8,312.