Paradise or Eat Your Face, a trio of novellas by Alan Cheuse, offers three different takes on the fragmentation of modern life: 1) a female travel writer's encounter with strange cultures (Bali in particular); 2) an ungrounded woman's encounter with strange cultures plus illness (the writer/stroke victim she takes care of and loves is a mixed Mexican-Iraqi-Jew); and 3) a writer recalls his father abusing his younger sister and driving her to madness in part because her mother did nothing to protect her…instead, abandoned her (the modern drug culture playing a role in this).
All three novellas are written with facility, grant writers a significant role in the action, and contain good descriptions of the California coast, notably Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay but also bits and pieces of San Francisco, Berkeley and further north.
The best of the three novellas is the title piece. There's something careless, reckless, strong and inquisitive about its protagonist, Susan Wheelis, that contrasts well with the terraced beauties of Bali. She's unencumbered, fairly hard working, and ready to take on lovers of either sex with no great sentimentality. But even in her strength, she is outrunning her weakness, or her need of integrative healing. As a consequence, the ending of the novella comes as a strong shock, a real smack, that clarifies exactly how hard she's been heading for a crash.
The second novella, "Care," gives us a heroine, Moira (a name referring to the three fates in Greek mythology) worthy of a better hero than Rafe Santerra, whose post-stroke consciousness is a pastiche of cerebral damage and shamanism. But Moira has not had the most successful life up to the point where she reencounters her former writing teacher, and there is not much she can demand of someone so incapacitated (albeit poetically incapacitated.) This is a pretty good novella, nonetheless. Moira can't deal with the cards she and Rafe are dealt, and that rings true and hurts when all is said and done.
The third novella, "When The Stars Threw Down Their Spears and Watered Heaven with Their Tears" (a title taken from William Blake), features a writer, Paul Brunce, who has been married three times and only in his third marriage does he tell his wife about his horrific childhood and mad, institutionalized sister. This isn't credible. How someone so badly treated as a boy can suddenly pour forth ghastly memories with such studied fluency is beyond me, though it is consistent with the pompous and frequent references made to Paul's literary idols as a youth and cohorts as a man. Rather than ravaged, a guy who has a permanent hard time taking life day by day, Paul on the eve of winter is something of a font of wisdom, regret, controlled rage, misery, and careful phrasing. Bad things happen throughout this novella. Incest, theft, juvenile detention, runaway parents, and bullets flying here and there all play a role. So do motorcycles, some black leather, a bar where you could get in trouble, and a father who turns out not to have committed suicide after all. It's just too ornately wrought for my taste. Somehow I don't think you can go through two marriages, even bad ones, without coughing up a few of these details--and if you managed that, it's unlikely that you'd be ready to spill everything so eloquently to wife number three.
For more of my comments on contemporary writing, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle.)
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