Post Road Magazine #11


Daphne Kalotay

It wasn't until 2002, three years after her death, that I discovered the work of Gina Berriault. In retrospect, it seems right that the book, a thick paperback entitled Women in Their Beds, had been abandoned (despite garnering numerous awards) on a shelf at the inn where I was staying. After all, Berriault specializes in the discarded, the undervalued, the overlooked. Her characters are single mothers disheveled by heartache, aging social revolutionaries clinging to the dregs of their progressive values, street artists dying from botched abortions, former addicts succumbing to disease and loneliness. In Berriault's hands these lives are not depressing, nor are they plumbed for melodrama. Berriault writes without condescension, without voyeurism. So how is it possible that I, a hardcore fan of short fiction, had never heard of this superb writer?

Perhaps it's because Berriault takes on the less pleasant subjects- not the alluringly shocking ones (well, yes, in at least one of her novels she does), but the everyday, ugly ones-without diluting them in any way that might make them easier to comprehend. She is serious (and by this I do not mean she lacks humor), and she is attentive, and she expects the reader, too, to pay attention.

For one thing, her characters are the people most of us don't pay attention to, people sorting through bins of clothes at the Salvation Army or changing buses late at night at some small-town depot on their way cross-country. In the story "Myra," for instance, the young title character, a newly married housecleaner living in a shoddy California boarding house, becomes pregnant just when her husband begins to lose interest in her. Berriault's every sentence captures Myra's rejection, her dejection, her fear, so that we too feel it:

A woman in Ross was asking Myra to come to work that day, Opal said, leading the way back to her room, her blue satin mules knocking against the porchboards, her behind moving like a nest of snakes in the tight, shiny nightgown. "Why'n she call you last night 'stead of this morning?" Opal complained, spitefully speaking forward instead of over her shoulder.

When we ache for Myra at the end of this story, it is not from pity but something much more meaningful-the pain of truly caring about another person.

The disjunction between understanding and compassion is at the heart of Berriault's best-known work, "The Stone Boy," in which a 9-yearold farm boy accidentally kills his older brother. (Berriault later expanded this story for a film starring Glenn Close and Robert Duvall.) Misinterpreting his shock as coldness, the boy's family and community view him as a sort of monster. The reader, meanwhile, sees only a child suffering in silence:

As the callers entered the parlor, Arnold sat down in a rocking chair. . . .If he stayed, he thought, as he always stayed and listened when visitors came, they would see that he was only Arnold and not the person the sheriff thought he was.

While California and the west are Berriault's most frequent settings, particularly powerful are the urban stories, set in coastal cities like Seattle and San Francisco-wet, gray places where the fog never quite lifts and people are forever huddled in too-big overcoats and stained jackets. Berriault is particularly at home in San Francisco, with its dicey neighborhoods and less fortunate streets. In one of my favorite stories, "Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am?" a city librarian approaching retirement-an intellectual and liberal-minded first-generation American who has overcome the various social and cultural hurdles to make a decent life for himself-is confronted daily by a young homeless man wanting not only to discuss poetry but also to sleep overnight in the library. In Berriault's hands, the story escapes sentimentality. We understand that it is the librarian's very closeness in circumstance to the young man, who in a way is a version of what the librarian might have become, that causes him to distance himself from him rather than actively sympathize. And so when the librarian finds generosity within himself, too late, it is impossible not to burst into tears.

Berriault's own generosity of spirit is evident in every one of her stories, which, I should point out, can be quite comic. In some cases Berriault even lets her wit run free. In her satirical story "The Vault," (collected posthumously in The Tea Ceremony) she inhabits the psyche of an aging and generally unknown writer, the author (like Berriault) of "a few obscure novels that had appealed to him and that nobody else had ever heard of." Courted by a second-rate university hoping he will donate his papers to its library, he is tormented by the prospect of his little-known works ending up locked in a scholar's vault. "If he gave over to Dr. Ackerman his manuscripts and notes to be placed among the insignificant others, they would remain for an eternity unread, unexamined, unwondered about, as dead as the being who had jotted it all down. . ." Was this Berriault's own worry? No matter: read Gina Berriault, and let the examining and wondering begin. •

Daphne Kalotay is the author of the collection Calamity and Other Stories. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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