Paradise, or, Eat Your Face: A Trio of Novellas

Paradise, or, Eat Your Face: A Trio of Novellas

by Alan Cheuse

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From acclaimed author Alan Cheuse -- National Public Radio's longtime "Voice of Books" -- comes a trio of provocative novellas. In the title piece, "Paradise, or, Eat Your Face," we meet travel writer Susan Wheelis and follow her exotic journey to Bali, and into her own frustrated soul. “Care" centers on Rafe Santera, a recent stroke victim who was once a vibrant…  See more details below


From acclaimed author Alan Cheuse -- National Public Radio's longtime "Voice of Books" -- comes a trio of provocative novellas. In the title piece, "Paradise, or, Eat Your Face," we meet travel writer Susan Wheelis and follow her exotic journey to Bali, and into her own frustrated soul. “Care" centers on Rafe Santera, a recent stroke victim who was once a vibrant, intellectual romantic. Attended by one of his many female admirers, we find ourselves in the midst of an unusual and politically incorrect love story. Cheuse takes us into Santera's erotic past, set against the daily struggles of a harrowing decline. The third novella, "When The Stars Threw Down Their Spears and Watered Heaven with Their Tears," follows author Paul Brunce as he grapples with art, life, and family. Publisher's Weekly has praised Cheuse's "impressive command of many voices" and, in this collection, he is once again in top form and in possession of a powerful range of literary gifts.

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"With his latest collection of novellas, Cheuse takes readers to Bali, to elder care, and then beyond life itself in an emotional tour of the American mindset. The stories are gripping, engaging, funny and every bit as weird as we are."  —

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Paradise, or, Eat Your Face

By Alan Cheuse

Santa Fe Writers Project

Copyright © 2012 Alan Cheuse
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9819661-7-5


A Paradise Like No Other

By Susan Wheelis

The dark-haired smooth-faced young brown-skinned woman dressed in a yellow and orange sarong walked quietly along the brick pathway toward the porch of my hotel room carrying a tray of what appeared to be baskets each about the size of her hand. Birdsong filled the lavender sky, high-pitched exotic warblings I couldn't identify, while close by roosters crowed a more familiar chorus. The sun had just come up on on my first morning in Bali....

And that was as far as she got in her notes that morning in Denpasar. She feared that her head might explode. She would have felt an awful lot better if she hadn't fooled around with the bartender from the Singapore airport the night before. For that, maybe she could blame her editor, who had suggested stopping off either in Hong Kong or Singapore to break up the long trip from San Francisco.

That's what she told the cute brown-cheeked bartender when he served up her first beer and inquired about her presence there.

(and why wouldn't he? Five foot eleven, beautiful reddish-blonde hair — a weird weave that her hairdresser in the city had given her — good tits, great legs, lovely tan. Her nose was slightly irregular — she didn't like to remember why. Except for the nose and the color of her hair she looked an awful lot like her mother. But this morning, waking up in the cool shadows of the beach hotel she saw a puffy face, with patches of discoloration, so that one cheek looked darker than the other, and her neck seemed to have added a crease along the line of her collar bone. (And her slightly overlarge nose, yes, all right, her father's nose)).

She never remembered her mother looking so unprepared for the world, but then, two things, one, her mother, a beautiful Mexican woman, never showed her face without having first put on her makeup, and, two, her mother died of uterine cancer when Susie was only six. She remembered little of her, except for bedtimes, when her mother told her stories about Mexico and how before modern times the gods told people how to live and what to do. Chac-Mool brought rain. Or was it Tlaloc? Or was it Huitzilopochtli? She couldn't remember much about this, in fact, amazed herself that she recalled these names so all chockablock in her memory.

The heart is very precious to a Mexican woman, her mother said at bedtime one night — or so she recalled or (perhaps even mis-)remembered it — because in the ancient days the priests cut out the hearts of the sacrificed and offered them to heaven.

Even the thought of it right now made Susie shudder. Cutting out the heart!

One more memory (much more gentle (and more mysterious)) of her mother remained — she told Susie how as a child she had while living for a while in the United States with her aunt learned English by listening to radio broadcasts of a childrens' show in which there was a story about a kingdom beneath the sea called the Land of the Lost, the place where all the things you lost turned up.

(And the memory of a taste — what was it?)

So at thirty-five she had no idea how she was doing in relation to her mother. Her father, a wealthy vagabond, born Wilensky who later changed his name to Wheelis, had lived only into Susie's twenties. But some of his words stayed with her. Put a good face on things and they'll work out. Too bad he had helped to make her face so distinctive. (But she didn't want to think about that.)

She couldn't remember on which occasion he had first said it. Maybe after her school advisor — this was at a private girls school in Troy, New York — suggested that she see a therapist. Which she did, in Albany — Mrs. Oakton, a slightly overweight woman who put her on several different kinds of medication. Or maybe it was after the disaster of her graduation. Sunny day, not bad for Troy in June, a light breeze, all these girls in their white dresses, looking so virginal. (Well, she might look that way. But during rehearsals for Revels in this her senior year scaly-skinned Mr. Trumble, the young school carpenter who smelled of paint and turpentine and helped with the sets, met her in the parking lot and invited her into his truck where they made out wildly, with fingers and mouths on fire. And that spring there was a drug-dealer in Troy, a stinky, because unwashed, long-haired freckle-faced Irish guy, a high school drop-out who talked about philosophy and punched her on the arm so hard in play that she had a bruise for a week. He was the first and made her feel as though he punctured her, though she had no bruises from it.)

But she and two friends, Pip Masterson, an anorexic blonde girl from New Haven and a foreign student named Antonia Gulbarra, were barred from the ceremony because a week before they had signed themselves out for an off-campus trip without permission, something they had done a zillion times that year without getting caught. Christ, what if they had gotten caught with a joint! Or the beer she'd learned to love when her mother died — that was the taste she recollected but could not at first name — and she tried to as a way, quite a successful way, actually, to anesthetize herself against sorrow. And what would the administration have done if they had found out about her taking acid in the middle of a Yankee game where her class went for its senior trip? Would they have had her arrested? Crucified? (Her father told her how he had been caught drinking and thrown out of his school when he was twelve.) Not much consolation as Susie watched her classmates walk to the stage and receive their diplomas while she and her two accomplices had to remain seated on the sidelines.

"Susan Wheelis!" she shouted at the end of the ceremony from where she milled about with the guests and public. (Her father had chosen to be in Patagonia on a ski trip!) A few people looked around. There was her therapist, a surprise guest, staring over at her from the other side of the crowd.

"That's me!" she announced. "I don't have to have somebody say my name. Susie! The only one from her class admitted to Berkeley!"

Mrs. Quentin, her favorite teacher — English — a bird-like woman with dyed black hair, who always praised Susie's writing, waded through the crowd and took her by the hand.

"I'm sorry," she said.

Susie felt so relieved when she didn't say anything more.

"I love you," Susie said, and kissed her on both cheeks.

Mrs. Quentin, who always seemed to enjoy Susie's antics, was surprised. She started back and let go of Susie's hand.

"Susie," she said, "I wish you well."

Upon his return from the world below, Susie's father sent some money to the school — a late gift to this year's development fund. A month later she received her diploma in the mail.

By that time Susie was living in her own apartment on the Lower East Side and working in a battered women's shelter where she spent the rest of the summer learning about the dark side of marriage — she and one of the other volunteers who worked there had a joke: forty thousand battered women in America each day, and you know why? You said this and raised a fist and put a menacing (male) look on your face. They just won't fucking listen!

By the end of the summer she moved to Berkeley.

Her father had an old friend, someone he attended Columbia with (when he had still been Wilensky), a writer who lived in San Francisco.

"You want to write?" he said. "You look up Hal. He's a real writer. He can set you straight."

She didn't want to be set straight. She didn't want to be set crooked. But after a few weeks out of curiosity — and out of boredom with her classes — she called the man her father had recommended. She knew he would be old but that didn't bother her. Young boys bored her. She wasn't sure why, except that they were boring.

It was her father, she supposed. He set a high standard for being interesting, no matter what you thought of him.

She and his old school friend Hal met at a North Beach coffee house. The writer had a snow-white beard and his breath smelled different from the breath of boys she knew — it smelled — mature, marinated, ready to cook, she couldn't find the words to describe it. And then it came to her: it smelled like her father's breath.

And then what did he bring up? Almost as if he were reading her mind!

"You look a little like your father," the man said. "That's good. I remember him as a handsome man."

"If you're a girl, you don't want to look handsome," Susie said.

Hal ignored her attempt at agitation.

"Does your father still fancy himself an adventurer?"

"He' s stopped mountain climbing," she said. "He had to admit he was getting too old for that." The fact was, she hadn't spoken to him for a while and was making this up. But it sounded right. He must have been doing something like that in Patagonia.

"It's a brave man who admits he's getting too old for certain things," the writer said.

"But he's still water-skiing, and he wrecked a speedboat a couple of years ago down in Florida."

"Good for him."

"And he took up sky-diving." This was true.

"I think he wrote me about that," the writer said. He paused and stared at her.

"And still plenty of girlfriends?"

Susie didn't say anything.

"I suppose I shouldn't ask a man's daughter that question."

Susie shrugged, pushing a finger to one side of her nose.

"I put him in a novel of mine once," Hal, the writer, said.

"Which is that? Have I read it?"

"Have you read any of my work?"

"I will now," Susie said.

Hal wanted to sleep with her — a girl knew something — but she kept him at arms' length — or hands length, anyway. She had an argument against it. It would be close to incest, wouldn't it? But she was lonely and horny, and so now and then they'd go up to his place in the Mission, a wonderful top-floor apartment with a roof-garden filled with all sorts of plants and flop down on his bed and cuddle, and he would give her plenty to drink — though, as she remembered it, he never drank anything himself — and she'd take out his penis, and pull him off and he'd then fall asleep, snoring in a fatherly way.

So weird!

He gave her a copy of the novel with the character who was supposed to be her father, but for somebody who wanted to be a writer she just couldn't get deeply involved in a work of fiction. She wanted to read about real things. Her life on its own was fiction enough for her. If only Hal had written about her father in a magazine article. She wanted answers, not stuff someone made up. That, she decided, was the kind of thing she wanted to write. Magazine articles. They read like little stories, and they were all true, and you learned from them. Sad — nothing at Berkeley helped her learn how to write one. She felt as though she were wasting her time, spinning around and around, never moving forward.

That winter quarter she matriculated at UC Santa Cruz. Everybody at Berkeley thought she was crazy. All the students they knew wanted to go in the opposite direction, Santa Cruz to UCB. So what? She was who she was. It was a perfect fit. She loved her classes under the redwoods and she loved the town even more. Either she spent time in the woods or at the beach or the aromatic dark interior of the Jahva, her favorite coffee house downtown, or at the beery flavored Catalyst, the best rock and roll club on the central coast, and she was stoned a great deal of the time, and when she wasn't she wanted to be.

Why not? She asked the question often, sitting on the rocks at Natural Bridges, staring at the undulating ocean, mesmerized by the horizon where water and sky met in a mysterious fusion. That fog sitting out there, what would it cover up, what would it reveal? She also asked another question. Where are you? Thinking of her mother. Are you out there somewhere? Where the water meets the sky?

Looking back on it, she had to admit she didn't have much of a taste for traveling. Santa Cruz felt like home — more home than any home she'd ever had. It wasn't until she took a writing course that she thought of other things. Her instructor was Carter Wilson, a tall thick bear of a man, bearded and imposing. But as sweet as the honey bears loved. He had written a novel set in Peru, and she thought that was so cool.

When he asked her once during office hours what she thought she might do with her talent — what? I have talent? She was amazed at hearing the word! — she heard herself say,

"I wanna be a travel writer."

"You could do worse," Professor Wilson said.

A week of intense thinking followed. Why did I say that? Where have I ever traveled? Where have I been?

Why? Why? Why? Why? She rode her bike to Natural Bridges and climbed out on the rocks and asked the ocean.

Why not? The ocean replied.

The fact is, she had always wanted to be writer of some sort or another. That's why her father sent her to Hal. When her mother was alive, she wrote poems to her, none of which, fortunately, survived. When her mother died, she stopped writing. But she took a course from Mrs. Quentin and that had helped her produce a number of sketches of the life going on around her. Nothing earthshaking, but it helped her develop a sense of narrative, which was the one thing missing from her writing. Because it was the one thing missing from her life.

"Find the story," Mrs. Quentin always said, pursing her thin pink lips and trying to make a smile.

Susie could tell from the way the woman said the words that she didn't think of them herself. But still they rang true.

What's my story? She wrote little pieces she called stories but she knew they weren't real stories.

"How do I find the story?" she asked Carter Wilson.

"You have to find a way to fuse emotion and action," Wilson, a good writer and a wise teacher, said.

She didn't say this to him but she thought to herself — first I have to know what I'm feeling, don't I?

Not necessarily, said a voice in her head. You have to know what you'd like to be feeling but not necessarily feel the feeling itself.

Ok, she said in response. I'll try to find it.

And she went out in search of it.

For example, at the Catalyst one night soon after she met a guy with an exploding rose tattoed on his thigh and they danced like crazy, crazy. To look at her you'd think she was trying to shake loose her limbs because she wanted to be rid of them. And the guy, really cool, just sort of stood there, wondering, who knew, she only guessed, if she knew what she looked like.

But of course she knew, she was a crazy horse, a colt, a frenetic filly, shaking loose those limbs!

Later, back at his room in a little beach town south of Santa Cruz, Mister Rose Tatoo exploded inside her — she thought of that, wrote it down the next day, pleased with herself — and though she didn't feel much herself she knew what she was supposed to be feeling.


Fat chance. His breath smelled of cigarettes and whiskey, he had stale bitter body odor almost like the smell of tar, and when he pushed her face toward his genitals she caught a whiff of everything he hadn't washed away for days.

Weeks and weeks went by after that evening and she couldn't get the taste out of her mouth. She'd brush, gargle with mouthwash, and brush again. She just couldn't get rid of it. It took weeks!

More weeks went by, the year went by. The season shifted. She changed her hair color. Her skin grew dark from the sun. She went out with a few more boys and things happened but it was all just mechanical. Her writing seemed to her to unfold in the same way. She chose a subject and wrote about it but felt nothing, except relief when she was finished. If she thought hard about it she could imagine what a feeling should be like — the way a blind person might try to imagine color by employing the other senses. Red is hot, like the surface of a rock after it's been out in the sun. Green is cool, the air in the shade of trees. Purple is like licorice, tasty and sharp and deep. She couldn't remember when all this had started for her — or, better to say it — -stopped for her. Probably with her mother's death, yes, of course.

Love — the soft pliable feeling of dough under your fingers.

Lust — hunger for sex like hunger for dinner after a long day without food.

Well, it wasn't so bad. She could live this way.

Hate — she drew a blank on this one. What was hate like? How nice that she couldn't feel this one. It almost made up for the other lacks.

And then there was always sadness.

That spring her father came for a visit, staying in the city with his writer friend Hal and driving down to Santa Cruz in a rented van.

"You've gotten too thin," he said. Bluntness was also his style. She thought she inherited the trait from him.

"I like the way I look," she said, studying him, the large forehead, the big swatch of pure white hair, his eyes so dark by contrast.


"Hal says I look like you but I think I look like my mother."

"Hal is my dear friend, one of my oldest friends. But he's got some flaws. Did he try to ...?"


"You know what I'm talking about."

"Do you think I look like my mother?"

"Come on, Susie. Are you trying to kill me? Talking like that?"

"Are you trying to kill me?"

"Have you been taking your medicine?"

"What medicine?"

"The medicine your psychiatrist told you to take."

"She wasn't a psychiatrist, she was a therapist. And that was when I was in high school."

"So you don't take it anymore?"

"What are you taking?"


"If you want to know what medicine I take it's only fair I should know what you take."

"No, it's not. And besides I don't take anything."

"You're a healthy old horse."

"You shouldn't talk to your father like that. But, what the hell, that's pretty good. A healthy old horse! I like that!"


Excerpted from Paradise, or, Eat Your Face by Alan Cheuse. Copyright © 2012 Alan Cheuse. Excerpted by permission of Santa Fe Writers Project.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio’s longtime “voice of books,” is the author of five novels,four collections of short fiction, the memoir Fall Out of Heaven, and the collection oftravel essays, A Trance After Breakfast. As a book commentator, Cheuse is a regular contributorto National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” His short fiction has appearedin The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, New Letters, TheIdaho Review, and The Southern Review, among other places. He teaches in the WritingProgram at George Mason University and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.Find out more about Mr. Cheuse at
Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio’s longtime “voice of books,” is the author of five novels, four collections of short fiction, the memoir Fall Out of Heaven, and the collection of travel essays, A Trance After Breakfast. As a book commentator, Cheuse is a regular contributor to National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” His short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, New Letters, The Idaho Review, and The Southern Review, among other places. He teaches in the Writing Program at George Mason University and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Find out more about Mr. Cheuse at

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