What Can We Steal From Derek Palacio’s “Sugarcane”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Sugarcane,” short story
Author: Derek Palacio
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story debuted in the Spring 2012 issue of The Kenyon Review, one of the top journals around.  The excellent story was subsequently chosen for the 2013 edition of The O. Henry Prize anthology.

Bonuses:  Mr. Palacio has also published a novella called How to Shake the Other Man.  You can learn more about it and purchase a copy at the Nouvella Books web site.  Here is a “Sugarcane”-centric interview Mr. Palacio did with the Kenyon Review.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Scene Construction

Discussion:
What a fantastic story!  Armando is a doctor in Cuba who takes on the son of a prominent sugar plantation manager.  Eduardo, unfortunately, “was thick in the hands, and recently he’d proven himself thick in the ears.”  The boy doesn’t seem to be good doctor material, no matter how hard Armando tries to teach him anatomy or bedside manner.  There is, however, one big benefit to taking Eduardo under his wing: the sugar.  Instead of receiving only his cup-a-week ration, Armando has pounds of beautiful sugar left on his doorstep.  The relationship between master and apprentice isn’t very smooth.  Armando gives his patients placebos when necessary and lies to them when he knows it will make them healthier.  In a relentless scene, Armando delivers a baby at risk of perinatal asphyxia while Eduardo interferes.  (The boy shocked by the amount of blood involved and offended that Armando screams at the mother to inspire her to push.)  Armando doesn’t want the arrangement to end–nor does he want the surreptitious sugar deliveries to end; after all, his ladyfriend Mercedes likes the sweetness she finds in his home.  (Both literally and figuratively.)  What will happen when the sugar cane fire burns out of control?  Read the story and find out.

Mr. Palacio does an awful lot of great stuff in this story.  I think one of the things I admire most is the way that he flips between different parts of the protagonist’s life.  Mr. Palacio makes Armando into a full and interesting character by alternating between scenes that relate to the doctor’s professional and private lives.  A lesser writer (like me!) might have focused only on Armando’s mentorship of Eduardo.  After all, that’s the central conflict in the story.  Instead, Mr. Palacio devotes page space to scenes that are complicated by Eduardo, even though the young man is nowhere to be found.  Armando’s courtship of Mercedes is fast-tracked by the extra sugar he receives and the lovers discuss him during their time together.

Every scene in a work must contribute to the overall narrative in some way.  Armando’s love affair fills him out as a character, but also buffets and explains the decision that the good doctor makes at the end of the story.  Mr. Palacio ensures that his “tangent” serves some important functions in his story.

Let’s look at that breathless scene in which Armando delivers the baby.  There’s an awful lot going on here.  Why is this section so cool?

  1. There’s a baby and a pregnant woman involved.  We all bring sympathy to situations involving babies and pregnant women.  (Except for Ted Bundy, I suppose.)  The scene would not have been as captivating if Armando were removing a heavy callus from some dude’s foot.
  2. The power differential between the two characters.  Armando is the doctor and knows what he’s doing.  Eduardo is the apprentice and knows nothing, but still involves himself in the procedure.  The same kind of tension can be felt when you’re on the highway in a blizzard and there’s a backseat driver in the car.
  3. The sentences become short and descriptive.  Mr. Palacio dazzles you with some beautiful prose elsewhere in the story, but this suspenseful scene requires a different kind of writing.  Although the ideas and emotions are complicated, the prose is not: “The woman tensed again, and Armando looked down to her crotch. The head was beginning to crown. The purple was turning blue.”
  4. A lot of the sentences in the narration begin with their subjects.  “The woman…” “Armando squeezed…”  “Armando reached…”  “Eduardo dropped…”  The simple and repetitive structure allows the reader to subconsciously focus on the drama of the situation instead of parsing the prose.
  5. There’s a beginning, middle and end to that specific scene–as well as a natural termination point.  The reader knows going in that the scene will end with the birth of the baby and that the child will either be dead or alive.  The delivery of the child follows a solid Freytag’s Pyramid…it starts out fairly calm and builds in intensity and ends with the denouement: mother and child are tired and bloody, but both are alive.
  6. The word “scalpel” appears in the same sentence as “perineum.”  I’m not a big fan of needles or sharp things.

I’m sure I’m the only person in the world who had this thought about Mr. Palacio’s story: I was reminded of the fantastic Alexander Payne film Sideways (based upon the equally fantastic book by Rex Pickett).  In the film, wine is not just a liquid to drink that might increase your happiness or deepen your sadness.  Paul Giamatti’s Miles, a failed writer, works wine into the metaphors that rule his life.  He’s the pinot grape, capable of beautiful maturity, but only if the right person tends to him and loves him enough.  The saddest use of wine-as-metaphor is when Miles, a man who spent the whole movie frustrated when others would not ENJOY wine, guzzles the expensive bottle he was saving for the never-to-be tenth anniversary of his wedding.  Instead of swishing small sips of wine around in his mouth to enjoy the mature flavors, he just sits in a booth at a crummy burger joint and gulps in between bites.

“Sugarcane” treats sugar as something that is much more than just a sweet powder.  Mr. Palacio works sugar into the relationships between the characters, including the love affair between Armando and Mercedes:

With a spoon she heaped little hills of brown crystal into the liquor until the rum nearly met the rim. She carefully stirred it and then gingerly pulled a soaked mound of sugar out of the glass. It dripped onto the kitchen table, and Mercedes held it up to Armando’s mouth.

Sugar is a sensual connection between people.  It’s a thank-you from father to teacher.  It’s the method by which a boy earns his way to medical school.  It’s a metaphor for the deprivation Cubans experienced under Castro.  Mr. Palacio, like Mr. Payne, Mr. Taylor and Mr. Pickett, never allows their central commodities to rule the story.  “Sugarcane” is very much about Armando and Eduardo, but Mr. Palacio gracefully describes the meaning of sugarcane in and to their lives.

What Should We Steal?

  • Illuminate all dimensions of your characters.  Yes, the most interesting thing your protagonist does is the bank robbery.  But why not show us a little bit of his or her home life to help us understand what leads them to slip the teller a note?
  • Recognize the scenes of extreme suspense in your work and write them accordingly.  Hitchcock changes technique a little bit in the Psycho shower scene.  Hugo’s narrator changes a little bit as Fantine dies.  We should flex different muscles when our stories require such a change.
  • Explore the deeper meanings of your story’s central conceit.  A story about the son of a sugar plantation manager explores sugar from a number of different angles.  A film about wine explores the beauty and sadness of the grape and what the grapes can become.

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One Comment

  • Would it be safe to say that this story is about how Sugar is used to manipulate people? Eduardo’s family bribed the doctor, and the doctor bribed (in so many words) Mercedes with sugar in exchange for love?

    They all seem to be trying to buy something they can’t really have. But the last line seems to be the most devastating. “And then Armando knew that she could never stay, that she could not think of staying.” In short, no matter how much sugar Armando has, it may not be enough to win Mercedes’ love. And no matter how much sugar the father brings to Armando, he may not be able to make Eduardo a doctor.

    Some things just can’t be bought.

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