The Trouble With Paradise (Berkley Sensation)
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Whether describing lucky breaks or hard knocks, her prose is intense and intimate, at once disconcerting and entrancing. These two books should ensure that she is back for good. In part because they make it clear Berlin's gifts were vast, complex, and full of tonal warmths.
Gen Bailey and SENECA SURRENDER
Like Chekhov, Berlin was a beautiful framer of stories. The details she chooses are those you have purposely eliminated, with that hitch in your ear that tells you to keep everything timeless.
Berlin is telling us that you can use and reuse the raw moments, that the texture of life is to be taken seriously, that those spontaneous bubblings of experience will spark faith, belief, devotion for the same reason that springs of youth and holy fonts do: because they are cold and clear and inexhaustible, because we can drink them out of our hands.
The mystery of her fiction is not, it turns out, in the source of its inspiration. It is in how Berlin transformed her life into art that is as vital as the thing itself. Despite the chatter and chaos, there is the promise of change tomorrow, be it good or bad. Considered together, the two collections leave little doubt she is one of the greatest American short story writers of the 20th century. These 22 stories show her startling range and unwavering devotion to remaining open, refusing to judge any of her characters, whether delinquent, conniving, or alcoholic.
All feature her distinctive voice, which operates in the space between free verse and prose. The fiction in which she made her home does not descend into the dirt, or darkness, of urban alienation — it emerges from that dirt. Berlin wrote in pursuit of a sense of belonging, and her fiction is a homecoming. This book is so transportative, so wonderful. Berlin has a particular, albeit well-nuanced, sympathy for intelligent, outspoken women who, like herself, are struggling to get by.
Now we have a second, smaller volume that is every bit as good as its predecessor. Rather, both sets of factors exist in searing, inimitable tension. The stories are whip-smart and strangely funny, and you'll be thinking about them for days afterward. No dead author is more alive on the page than Berlin: funny, dark, and so in love with the world. Beautifully realized stories with good, old-fashioned virtues.
A collection of previously uncompiled stories from the short-story master and literary sensation Lucia Berlin In , Farrar, Straus and Giroux published A Manual for Cleaning Women , a posthumous story collection by a relatively unknown writer, to wild, widespread acclaim. Lucia Berlin worked brilliantly but sporadically throughout the s, s, and s. After our visit to the pews, we circled the perimeter and walked back to the bridge exactly the same way we came. Lindy asked if we could take a different route.
In fact, his young son had too, from birth. I was uncomfortable every minute, on red alert, yet fascinated and drawn in a horrific sort of way. I took about twenty snapshots with my cell phone, but I felt inappropriate while doing it, hurriedly putting the object away after each shot; it was as though I was advertising my American-ness and practically inviting disapproval or retaliation. I aimed away from people, except in the crowded park, and none of the pictures look like anything at all.
In order to capture what Juarez was like, I would have had to aim the lens at actual people and take pictures in a blatant way, as of animals on safari, and that would have only accentuated my privilege and stance of entitlement as well as my separation from them, my role as one more insensitive, gawking gringo from across the Rio Grande.
They know all about us; they know more about us than we do about ourselves. That is why we are the anglos and barbies. They see that and pity us and do not feel like victims at all. We are the ghosts who blow through; they are the ones alive. I had passed from birth in a wealthy hospital to protected mall after protected mall, some as larger as whole villages or counties, all within the greater protectorate of the Empire and its corporate affiliates.
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Everything in my life including actions that I had once considered important or profound or even lasting like founding a publishing company or writing weighty books was just more commodity aggregation, of goods or persona. Even my bleats against the Empire were just more imperial grist and fodder All that I really had to give back now on the street was my tacit acknowledgment of that fact, and an attempt to apologize silently, to sustain humility in keeping with the reality.
Not that they even cared or that most of them would have cared if they had known. Bobby had; he brought plenty of coins to distribute along the way. I felt that he was prepared to cross the Styx that dayt. In any of our fine cities the gendarmerie would come and peel them off the streets, take them god knows where.
You also need the sounds and the smells of Juarez to get it: a constant stream of mariachi and mariachi-like music coming from bars and other establishments, as if some sort of carnival were transpiring, only a dark, surreal replica of a funereal one. Beneath that were a variable murmur and din, many more voices and more complicated sounds and interactions than on most North American concourses. Nearby him were Aztec dancers and two young male and female models dressed in phosphorescent, clown-like, faux-Aztec costumes, doing a frenetic dance of their own that seemed a mockery of the old men—they were selling phones for Telecom.
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Yes, there were prospering, stylish Mexican families and hip entrepreneurial-looking youth too, distributed unequivocally with the rest, folks who could have passed in any American hamlet. The smells were of whiskey from the open doors of bars , sewage, incense, perfume, ripe fruit, bitter herbs, baking, and life; as they blended, they engulfed us. Things were falling apart everywhere—the sidewalk, the walls, the buildings, but people operated undaunted and unfazed around the disrepair.
There was minimal ritualistic maintenance of infrastructure here, certainly compared to El Paso. Mostly Juarez was beyond sight, smell, or sound; it was truly an energy field and aura, a distinct vibration. Rarely have I felt such a extrinsic presence so powerfully: everything had changed from El Paso on both a subtle and gross level, and that transubstantiation consumed and heightened everything, psychic and otherwise. Plus, everyone was engaged in life as it was given here, so that was where most of my flights of fancy went, into trying to find my own alternate life down these orphic streets as if I had been born and grown up here—what they felt like to those for whom they were home and who had no other place to go day and night, day and night; what it might feel for some future being on my karmic thread, either here or elsewhere or on some other world, to get born in such a place.
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That is what Juarez opened in my heart and soul. That and the sense that my humanity was measured by the amount of compassion I could muster, amidst my knee-jerk self-protectiveness, the desire to be separate and get back to America as soon as possible and not be this, the wish not even to look too seriously at what was there nakedly on the ground to see, living and dying. Juarez disclosed the baseline denominator, where all things eventually end up.
As we approached the bridge for our return, I felt remorse for leaving it behind without fully absorbing it or testing myself and my limits against its limits, tasting its actual grime and surviving, but I never would, not in this life if I could help it. In the end I was taken with the beauty of the place, and by that I mean how its chaos, human misery, and warlord exploitation settled at the level of a complex ceremony that overrode each of them and served a greater cosmic esprit.
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If the infrastructure of the United States collapsed to the same degree, it would not be nearly as beautiful, not beautiful at all. It would be quite ugly, and things would get far uglier very fast. Take all that away, and Juarez would look like the acme of human civilization on Earth. That is what the jihadists are trying to tell us from their own states of anti-consumerist delusion, for they are in the same cabal.
Juarez, though, gets a bye, a free pass. After all, they keep the peace, the joy, even with the drug lords testing daily how much God will permit, will let them get away with, how much mayhem and blasphemy, how many times over they can drown the ceremony of innocence, without His striking them dead if He even exists. In the circumstance of Juarez, those anti-immigrant folks would kill and eat each other faster than the participants of a Survival Reality TV show, which is all any of this is anyway sans the producers and funding. But Juarez is reality itself. Still it is a complicated, multi-level issue because, after all, with gangs thriving and drug wars presently raging, the major and police chief of Juarez choose to live in El Paso, out of reach.
On re-entry to the US, I watched the woman immediately in front of us get led away by an agent, who looked about sixteen for all his designated power. And this from was the privileged short line for US citizens only. The non-US-citizen line stretched well back into Juarez. We had Kerouac qua the Soto Zen Master as Beatrice, leading the way, keeping us safe, telling us stories of current events, political watersheds, crimes, pool games, incidents involving his son, etc. He made it both educational and initiatory, and all along we felt in impeccable hands, as though he was prepared and at harmony with the people and place, as though he was leading us on a walking meditation through the circle of the damned, though it was unclear whether that meant us or them.
That was the key to the walk: Gate gate, paragate, for sure. Thanks, Bobby, for being a true poet and warrior and for striking the right chord, human and political, all the way. Thanks all the way from Aspen age twenty to El Paso age seventy. Thanks for holding the station on the fort.