Thursday 16 May 2024

Her First Detox by Lucia Berlin

This is Halloween, this is Halloween! Pumpkins scream in the dead of night!

One of Lucia Berlin's many remarkable qualities as a writer is find the absurdity and humor in serious or tragic situations. This narrative approach makes her stories both funny and deeply poignant--a difficult balance to convincingly achieve. The protagonist, Carlotta, wakes up in a detox ward of a hospital after being arrested for drunken behavior. Could she be a stand-in for the author, drawing inspiration from her own experiences with alcohol? Most likely. 

Lucia Berlin's sharp and keen observational humor is also quite effective. Early in the story, there's a darkly humorous scene where the patients are tasked with crafting their own balloon pumpkins for Halloween. However, frustration quickly sets in as it becomes apparent that the AA facilitators are predominantly the ones doing all the work. As the narrator observes with a wry tone: "There was much childlike laughter, because of the slippery balloons, their shaky hands. It was hard, making the pumpkins. If they had been allowed to cut out the eyes and nose and mouth they would have been give those dull dumb scissors." The attention to detail ("shaking hands", "dull dumb scissors") and conciseness creates such a vivid scene filled with emotional nuance. 

Carlotta's interactions with the other patients in the hospital is also quite funny. Lucia Berlin  knows how to write witty and authentic dialogue that dances on the page. Since many of the other characters drift in and out of the story so quickly, these comedic exchanges reveal much about their personalities. Carlotta's sobriety remains uncertain, demanding immense inner strength to resist the allure of alcohol. For me, the most emotionally poignant aspect of the story is when she leaves the hospital; her struggle to reintegrate into the everyday routine of running errands, attending to household chores, and caring for her children. While staying at the hospital, she was a like a kid at school again, taking art classes and hanging out with friends in detention without any adult responsibilities. This brief stint away from her family and work offered a much-needed respite from the monotony of her daily existence. Yet, the uncertainty of what lies ahead is an integral part of her healing journey. In embracing the unknown, Carlotta's path to recovery becomes both a challenge and an opportunity for growth.

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