I Live Now
Can Sleep While I Drive
by Susan Daitch
In nearly every one of Lucia Berlins third collection of short stories characters clutch half pints, bottles, cups, glasses, and mayonnaise jars of alcohol. As Elizabeth Hardwick said of John Cheever, a glass in hand is never far away, but Lucia Berlins territory is about as far from Cheevers northeastern suburbia as you can travel without getting your feet wet.
Many of the stories are deeply rooted in the geography of northern California, a landscape neither entirely urban or suburban. Here, Berlin explores many polarities: the haves and the have nots, the medicated and the steadfastly sober, Hollywood celebrities and small town Mexican barmen. Her California is populated by those pushed aside by the dot-commers--not necessarily aging activists, but those who, if they didnt get arrested with free speech leader Mario Savio, at least knew who he was.
In "Let Me See You Smile" Lawyer Jon Cohen has constructed his life so that very few unpredictable elements will enter it. He has a set routine of friends, dinners, and so on. At the opening of the story he is approached by a teenage boy, Jesse, who will unconsciously challenge that carefully forged stability. Jesse wants Cohen to defend his girlfriend, Carlotta, who was falsely accused of trying to smuggle drugs and weapons on an airplane.
Cohen agrees to take the case and becomes smitten with the pair. Carlotta is old enough to be Jesses mother, but their relationship, as Cohen voyeuristically sees it, may be the great love affair of both their lives. Although they are two fisted drinkers, Cohen romanticizes his new friends as unpredictable free spirits who hop freight trains, swim naked in Lake Merritt, and sleep on rooftops--ignoring the wreckage and instability that they also swim in and generate. Cohens wife refers to the pair as "Peter Pan and company" and bitterly complains about her exclusion from their outings. Eventually Peter Pan and company will drive a wedge into Jons life, the dimensions of which he finds difficult to comprehend. The pattern of his social whirl--dinners with friends at expensive restaurants--begins to seem empty and predictable. Hes rude to his wife. Eventually they will divorce. He wins Carlottas case, as he knew he would, but remains disappointed. Carlotta expresses no relief at their victory. Life goes on. Perhaps he never understood who Carlotta and Jesse really were.
Texas and Mexico also figure prominently in the collection, locations which bring with them the notion of borders, both geographical, as well as psychological. A pregnant woman is hoodwinked into smuggling drugs for her addicted husband. A middle aged receptionist in a doctors office pushes the boundaries of her marriage. Characters may think the definition of marriage carries with it a conception of fidelity and loyalty, but they experiment with those borders, or others push them into doing so. Maybe one can try having affairs, maybe one can choose heroin at the expense of the safety of ones pregnant wife.
In "Silence," a structurally complex story, what appears to be narrative meandering is actually a tightly controlled journey of tragic proportions. A girl growing up in El Paso, lonely, changing schools, and enduring a back brace, finally finds a friend in Hope, the Syrian girl next door. They play jacks, see movies, skate, shoplift and, finally, sell cards together door-to-door for Hopes brother, Sammy, intending to use the money they earn to buy something for themselves. Sammy, however, pockets their earnings to buy a used car for himself.
In their anger both girls vow never to speak to him again, but the narrator is lulled into accepting a ride from their betrayer. Seeing her in the car, Hope ends the friendship. Her companionship is replaced by the very cool, but alcoholic Uncle John. Without graphic detail Berlin skillfully implies that Uncle John defends the girl against the sexual abuse of her grandfather and the verbal abuse of her mother. For a while Uncle John is her savior, but then he scolds her for remaining mute when her grandfather "does the same thing" to her sister.
Its a paltry misdemeanor, to stay silent, compared to crimes of the adults, but for a child the scale is entirely reversed. The grandfathers molestation of his granddaughters is a far more serious act than the narrators silences and betrayals, but his sins appear to go unpunished while she endures the sting of both Hopes rejection and her Uncle Johns rebuke. She spoke to Sammy when she should have remained silent, yet she was silent when she should have spoken out against her grandfather. The childs burden of guilt is overwhelming.
What are the borders of speech? What are the borders of silence? At first the misstep of riding in a car with the man who cheated both her and her only friend seems more egregious than her own molestation by her creepy grandfather. An abused child, she finally finds a friend and protector in her uncle, but he will also disappoint her in a way, she will later understand, he couldnt control, when he hits a boy and a dog with his car while drunk. She asks him to turn around, drive back to see if they need help, but he cant.
One of the best stories in the collection, "Evening in Paradise," revolves around a fictional account of the the shooting of John Hustons "The Night of the Iguana" in Mexico in 1964. Liz Taylor, Ava Gardner, and other cast and crew members land in a "fishy little sleeping village" bringing movie glamour with its dopey, doped, and self absorbed players. The Mexicans who will literally or figuratively sweep up after them are dazzled but ready. Hernan, the barman of the Oceano hotel, looks after the needs of Senior Huston, but he is also proud of and preoccupied with his daughters upcoming quinceanera, the traditional celebration of her fifteenth birthday.
The two missions run in tandem for Hernan, contradictory but never conflicting. The birthday ceremony is about preserving a way of life, the other task is attending to the needs of the invading American culture Huston represents. In contrast, Hernans aspirations appear innocent and dedicated to a kind of stability thats of no interest to the Hollywood visitors.
Not only do two cultures look across the table at one another as complete strangers, but men and women do as well: Sam Newman, "a handsome easygoing American married to an older woman who kept him on a loose rein" misses his chance to sleep with Ava Gardner. Overwhelmed and intimidated by "the woman Ive loved since childhood," Sam turns out to be a sexual flop. "My dick disappeared," he says. No one will get what they want, but Berlins vision is more knowing than bleak.
Although the stories occasionally suffer from an overload of characters, they are very clear windows into lives pushed to their limits by drugs, alcohol, and abuse. Just as the narrator of "Silence" understands both her uncles heroism and his erratic nature because she comes to suffer from the same addiction, Berlin gives a sense of looking back, dry eyed, possibly sober, painfully aware of the life cycles that put one where one is at any given moment. These are characters who take responsibility for their actions: whether smuggling drugs or driving drunk, little in their universe can be blamed on random occurrence. We make our own destiny, the narrator says, "I understand now because I am an alcoholic." Its actually the first part of her sentence that is the most telling. Berlin gives a sense that understanding is possible because she knows exactly what kinds of waves of alcoholism and disappointment have led her to where she lives now.
The California and western frontier of You Can Sleep While I Drive, Liza Wielands third work of fiction and her second book of short stories, is a landscape defined by absences. Children lose their fathers and mothers, parents their children. Death is nearly always at the door. Characters are defined by whom they have lost, and ghosts are everywhere for surviving sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers. And still, You Can Sleep While I Drive is more a beautifully written articulation of how lives are molded by deeply felt attachments rather than a morbid examination of missed opportunities.
The first story in the collection, "Purgatory," establishes the schema of the moral dilemmas around which many of the narratives to come will be arranged. A young woman is driving to Flagstaff, Ariz., to visit the remains of her family: an ailing father, a brother, and a sister-in-law who is expecting a child. She too is pregnant and may or may not marry her companion, a sketchy character named Charlie. Life is a toss up: abortion or marriage? Believe in a dream of a baby or look depressing facts right in the eye? Charley is not very inspiring, nor is her father, who carries on invisible conversations with her dead mother.
Characters, both adults and unborn children, occupy various states of marginalization, limbo, or purgatory. They may be ready to enter the world, or they may remain in the waiting room. The pregnant young womans mother died before they could sort out an argument, and her presence haunts the daughters return to her family to introduce Charlie. As in many of the stories there are unfinished arguments, long ago uttered sentences which possess the living with their infinite lost possibilities of resolution. In the end Charlie isnt the issue: the narrators peace with her family is what shes actually struggling with. Hes left to his own devices while the narrator imagines standing with each member of her family, waiting for her mother.
Despite the inherent sadness of these stories, they are far from humorless reflections on mortality and the problem-atic of familial relationships. Wieland has a talent for saying the unspoken with hilarious results, whether referring to famous figure skaters whose costumes are adopted for Halloween, the invention of nylon, or the animation of the Seven Dwarves. In the middle of an awkward moment a character might think about the ridiculousness of his or her situation, such as in "Purgatory" where the narrator thinks about how her sister-in-law, Arlene, manages to be congenial most of the time:
I always thought Arlene should be the name of a woman much older than my brothers wife is. When I heard that name, all I could think of was Arlene Francis in Whats My Line, and the way she had to sit there in her chiffon gown next to the likes of Soupy Sales and Nipsy Russell. So when David drove Arlene Fisher to Flagstaff to meet the family three years ago this Christmas, I was surprised to see someone young and pretty with this mass of curly blonde hair, and wearing a red dress like she knew how it was supposed to be worn.
Another hidden pleasure in Wielands writing is the way she depicts emotion through the details of quotidian experience. Big losses are not framed by handkerchief wringing but by a drive across the desert or the memories of sneaking into a public swimming pool at seven in the morning. "The Loop, The Snow, Their Daughters, The Rain," is a wonderfully written story in which plot and causes dont really matter. The story is more a meditation on the visceral relationship between two mothers and two daughters who are no longer babies but not yet children. The daughters cant yet speak clearly, yet broadcast their needs in their own private language, a system of meaning their mothers thrive on but would also like to take a vacation from. A night in a hotel far away from the children is planned:
Already they are dreaming of a night, a whole long night during which their daughters will say nothing. That is how they look forward to it: silence. Their daughters will, for one night, stop learning the language at this alarming rate, stop pulling words from their bodies they way they once did breast milk. They will forget Ernie, whom they love beyond reason, and far more than Bert.
It is ironic, but fitting, that most of Wielands characters face west, either traveling through it or living on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. This is not quite the romantic frontier west where one can start a new life, because the past and its looses allow none of the characters that luxury, but rather it is the west of no boundaries, of limitless desert and ocean that in some ways reflects the singular, boundless emotional journeys undertaken. In a geography Americans have often associated with the myths of forgetting and renewal, Wieland has found a place where emotions can take on their protean coloring, and grief at loss turns into an opportunity to re-examine the relationships of the past and present. Nothing is taken for granted in the world of You Can Sleep While I Drive. Wielands language makes you think twice, and in turn she causes the kinds of relationships she describes to be re-examined as well.