Yma’s Critique of Feast of San Sebastian
This chapter has an absolutely beautiful, cohesive arc. There are obviously “bridging” chapters in any book, but to me the pinnacle of arc construction in a novel is when you could literally take a chapter out of a story and submit it as a stand-alone piece. This chapter fits that bill.
One overall concern I have is with sentence construction. There are a lot of extra words and repetition that compromise emotional impact, cohesion, and clarity to different degrees at varying points throughout the piece. Looking at ways to economize your language is important for tightening up this chapter.
In terms of emotional impact your second and third paragraphs are “working hard.” It gives the reader a ton of information! We learn about racial and socioeconomic dynamics on the island and Ilan’s relation to those issues, as well as crucial backstory for our protagonist. However, in terms of storytelling cohesion it comes too early in the chapter. I am not firmly grounded in the primary setting. I also need to know that it is sunset immediately, especially since the flashback clearly occurs during the day. Strengthening the relationship between the disappearing city and the disappearing light will add depth and symbolic strength that can be played off of for the rest of the chapter.
Your description of the valley in Caguas is stunning, it is very clear and conjures vivid images. In general, your landscape descriptions are profoundly evocative, sensually generous, and extremely grounding. They are really working for the story as reflective mechanisms for Ilan’s internal states. Again this section is hard-working with backstory about Ilan’s childhood and the foreshadowing of alcoholism which you smoothly integrate later after his meeting with Carlos.
“But in this valley, near the original villages set up by Taino chieftains a thousand years ago, he felt a life pulsating through every tree, every rock, every inch of this land, and he timed his departure so that he arrived at a high point in the valley at the exact moment the sun began to rise.”
Destroying the reverie with a car horn is a great device to jar Ilan and the reader back into a sense of place.
The backstory on Carlos works hard in terms of information about his relationship with Ilan, but cleverly withholds just enough information about how violent and sordid their criminal activities are that the reader is walloped in the warehouse scene. Some cohesion and clarity is sacrificed because of extra language that does not advance plot or theme.
Original: They had met in his days working the yolas, when they had apprenticed under Don Guillermo.
Edited: They had both apprenticed under Don Guillermo during his days working the yolas.
The sentence construction in the following passage is awkward. You repeat “always” to demonstrate the pervasiveness of his crippling paranoia, but this could be done using more evocative language. You could substitute “constantly” etc. This extra language dilutes the emotional impact and weakens clarity.
“He was always afraid that they were being watched, or that the smuggler was an undercover cop. He always expected to make it back to the airport, when Carlos would always smile, pat him on the back, congratulating him on a job well done, and just as they would make it to the gate ten cops would be waiting for them, guns drawn. He always had that suspicion, and it would twist his insides so he wouldn’t eat the whole trip, but every time they made it back with no problems. Even that string of successes couldn’t calm his nerves. He could always hear his abuela’s lament…”
Original: He always had that suspicion, and it would twist his insides so he wouldn’t eat the whole trip, but every time they made it back with no problems.
Edited: Suspicion twisted his insides so he wouldn’t eat the whole trip, but every time they made it back with no problems.
Reintroducing his abuela at this point and Ilan’s visceral reaction to these frightening and dangerous smuggling trips is very effective. Your piecemeal disclosure of the exact nature of Carlos and Ilan’s “business” is masterful in its emotional impact. As the paragraph progresses you realize what a truly nasty world our hero is involved in. You do an excellent job of enhancing emotional complexity with one sentence. “Why didn’t you just shoot her?” You force the reader to remember who the hero really is. Up until this point you have introduced very universal emotional experiences: innocence of childhood, a bit of jealousy, awe at nature, familial love, fear, insecurity, relief, nostalgia. Although, Ilan is on one level horrified by what he does (the panic attack at the end of the scene shows that), this character has some significant morality problems. “He had seen plenty of dead bodies, but few in that condition.”
This is great storytelling because it deftly paints the shades of gray so characteristic of human behavior and essentially forces the reader to sympathize with a VERY flawed hero. This scene is a slam dunk in terms of emotional impact and storytelling.
Clarity would be greatly improved by adding tags to the conversation with Ilan and Carlos because it is difficult to track who is speaking. After the blood smell “singes” Ilan’s nose and he is relieved to be outside, we lose the physicality of his response. I want to know if his guts are starting to roil, is he fighting to focus on the conversation, leaning on a wall to cover his lightheadedness – perhaps there is blank numbness and his voice sounds like someone else’s. I also feel like Carlos is not fully “on the page” after he lights his cigarette. I would like to see blood-crusted fingertips holding the cigarette. Does he smell of blood? Is there a quality in the eyes of a man who could cut a woman into pieces and sell her organs? What is Ilan thinking about his friend? You might consider adding a hot sun searing on Carlos and Ilan while they talk outside. There isn’t much setting, and overall your scenery descriptions are doing incredible things for this chapter. Since the chapter begins and ends with sunset, shining a bright light at the chapter’s climax could be a useful device to generate emotional impact, and amplify the arc.
This scene is so hardcore that it mutes the presence of extra language to some degree, but there are still a few spots where the wording could be more economical thereby enhancing emotional impact and clarity.
He felt he could barely breathe as the anxiety caused his insides to convulse and tears to well up in his eyes. He had seen plenty of dead bodies, but few in that condition. It reminded him of the last day he worked as a smuggler, when one of the migrants they brought in had bashed his head against the wall of the warehouse until his skull cracked open. When they found him the next morning blood had spread to the entire lower half of the room, soaking five other immigrants who woke up screaming and nearly causing a riot.
He could barely breathe as his insides convulsed and tears welled up in his eyes. He had seen plenty of dead bodies, but few in that condition, and it reminded him of his last day as a smuggler. One of the migrants had bashed his head against the warehouse wall until his skull cracked open. The next morning blood had spread to the entire lower half of the room, soaking five other immigrants who woke up screaming and nearly causing a riot.
The scene at El Horizonte is beautifully done. I can feel the regret, terror, confusion, self-loathing, and desperate plotting to make everything go away. Your writing is at its peak when you integrate natural setting. I have nothing to say about this paragraph except Bravo!
The last scene has all of the correct ingredients, I just think that structurally there are problems with clarity. After “For now, Fajardo would have to do” we need a couple of transitional lines to get us from El Horizonte to abuela’s house. He could even be having the beach house fantasy in the car en route to Fajardo. Once he arrives then launch into the description of the how abuelo saved for the house.
The overall storytelling is in this section is lovely. As far as emotional impact, I would encourage you to amplify the images of the setting sun for two reasons. One, it would be a wonderful framing device. Remember my suggestion to clarify that it was sunset at the very beginning of the chapter? You already have a exquisitely crafted 24-hour arc. A few more luscious descriptions of disintegrating light would round things out nicely. Second, the symbolic impact of a day descending into darkness after what Ilan has been through has a powerful emotional resonance. Death of innocence as Ilan dreams of being a baseball player dies and he ends up becoming a criminal. I would encourage you to integrate language along the lines of his “dreams faded like a dying sun.” My suggestion is a bit cliché and very rough, but what I am saying is to create more overt associations of fading light with fading dreams, fading morality, and fading hope. The end of the chapter is truly tragic, and you do an amazing job of bringing the reader back squarely into Ilan’s corner. The reader realizes that the things Ilan has done have cost him his soul, and that he is as much a victim as a perpetrator.