Reading Lucia Berlin has always been, at least to this reader, an experience of immersion in the author’s life. Her autofiction is so compelling, so alive, and so, well, autobiographical, that it can be difficult to separate the Marias, Maggies, Mayas, Lauras, and Lisas who populate Berlin’s work from the author herself—like untangling a necklace with a straight pin. So when it was announced that Evening in Paradise, Berlin’s second story collection to publish since her death in 2004, would be accompanied by a memoir, Welcome Home, the news brought both excitement and the concerning possibility of redundancy. What didn’t faithful readers of Berlin already know about her life? What could she accomplish with narrative that wasn’t already on display? As it turns out, a great deal.
Unlike A Manual for Cleaning Women, the 2015 collection that brought Berlin to posthumous international acclaim, Evening in Paradise closely mirrors the chronology of the author’s life, beginning with stories of a carefree girlhood set in west Texas and a privileged adolescence in Santiago, Chile. “Andado” describes a girl named Laura’s visit to a wealthy family’s ranch and her seduction by a man her father’s age. Her awe at his family’s lifestyle and admiration for his self-assurance splinters into confusion and betrayal; he tells her, “I’m not angry with you, mi vida. I have ruined you and have nearly killed my best horse.” When Laura returns home, she comes to understand her mother has attempted suicide. Her father is blasé about the event, saying, “She got a hold of some sleeping pills, that’s all. She’ll be fine. Just wanted a little attention.” Here, women’s suffering takes a backseat to card games, cocktails, and property sales.
In “Dust to Dust,” the same protagonist describes the death of a glamorous, aristocratic young man in the frank, nearly indulgent manner in which Berlin is so adept: “There are things people just don’t talk about. I don’t mean the hard things, like love, but the awkward ones, like how funerals are fun sometimes or how it’s exciting to watch buildings burning. Michael’s funeral was wonderful.” The local tragedy thrills her. Later, she says, “It would have been in poor taste for me to tell the girls at school just how many unbelievably handsome men had been at that funeral. I did anyway.” This is Berlin at her most agile. These two stories turn on a dime, taking us from somewhere blue and rawly devastating to a new place still destructive, but also fun. The nimbleness with which Berlin moves between proximate feelings—here, grief and desire—is what makes the work so ruthless, sympathetic, and comic all at once.
The title story, uncharacteristically, features no clear Berlin avatar. It traces a night in the life of Hernán, a middle-aged Acapulco bartender who serves stars like Ava Gardner and John Huston, observing drug dealers and beach boys as they come and go. He is the story’s one stable character, the axis around which the booze-fueled chaos and wreckage of the beach town spin. An “Evening in Paradise” is merely something he must endure before he can return to his wife. One of the drug dealers Hernán serves appears again in “La Barca de la Ilusión,” a gripping and violent account of Berlin’s life in a jewel-like beachside village in Mexico. The otherworldly, magical setting is pierced by the grim reality of her husband’s heroin addiction. Berlin’s grown narrator is particularly convincing, forcefully torn out of a practically perfect life by the dark, violent addiction of the man who enables their otherwise idyllic lifestyle.
Just as important as Berlin’s knack for precise and cutting detail, however, is what she leaves out. The exclusion of important events gives her storytelling a distinct shape. In Welcome Home, for example, Berlin sketches life in the various New York apartments she lived in with her children and second husband, Race. It’s understood, but never exactly related, that Berlin is having an affair with Race’s friend, Buddy Berlin. (This shouldn’t come as too much of a shock to anyone who knows her name). She writes, “Sometimes Buddy would drive up from Albuquerque. Helene would stay with the children and we’d go to Claude’s to hear Race play. Ed handed us menus, poured the cabernet, hissed at me that this was a cheap and predictable situation.” There’s no information about the relationship with Buddy besides that a friend finds it “cheap and predictable.” This is Berlin’s talent and her tragedy: she can, at times, see herself so clearly through the eyes of others and yet still fail, as we all fail, to stave off moral turpitude, to help herself from tawdry and unsurprising behavior. She does confess, albeit indirectly, in the very next section, which begins, “Race forgave me for the affair with Buddy, I think; we certainly never spoke of it.” She seems to settle into her life, caring for her two sons, donning gloves and writing by the oven during winters in the freezing apartment, her calm and contentment interrupted when Buddy once again knocks on her door. Berlin says all she needs to about his return to her life: “He brought a bottle of brandy and four tickets to Acapulco.”
Berlin’s immense and unsparing self-awareness is also on display in Evening in Paradise’s “Lead Street, Albuquerque,” narrated by a neighbor of Berlin stand-in Maria. The narrator describes the way Maria’s husband, Rex, controls her behavior and appearance: “She talked more when he wasn’t around, was funny in a Lucille Ball way. She joked about the makeover, told us that the first time he had seen her naked he had said, ‘You are asymmetrical!’ He made her sleep on her stomach, nose flat against the pillow; her turnedup nose was a slight imperfection.” Berlin, through her narrator, picks at her own old wounds. With cold-eyed distance, she imagines not only what her partner thought of her but what a third party thought of that perception. The neighbor goes on to describe the extent to which Maria worships her cruel husband: “One winter morning I went to borrow some coffee and she was actually ironing his jockey shorts so they would be warm when he got out of the shower.”
Sure enough, in Welcome Home, there’s a section called “Lead Street, Albuquerque” containing nearly all of these same details, but Berlin-as-memoirist adds another layer, writing, “I held the hot part of the cup and gave him the handle. I ironed his jockey shorts so they would be warm. I always tell these things and everybody laughs, but, well, they are true.” And, of course, that seems to be the point. These stories are funny, and Berlin knew that. She understood the captivating power of her own stories and her way of telling them. Kirkus Reviews claims “no dead author is more alive on the page than Berlin.” The autobiographical content of Berlin’s stories doesn’t undermine their artfulness, any more than their humor undermines the ugliness of the situations depicted. Rather, both sets of factors exist in searing, inimitable tension. In Evening in Paradise and its accompanying memoir, a reader encounters a vulnerable Berlin, one who writes the very things most authors would be too ashamed or inattentive to share, who leans back while her audience laughs and, for a moment, cannot laugh along because, “these things . . . well, they are true.”