Luis Ramos, my uncle, left Puerto Rico when the U.S. Army took him out of a college classroom and sent him to bootcamp and from there to Vietnam. In Vietnam, he came under fire a half dozen times, once, in a real firefight that lasted an entire day. He had medals, a knife wound and two bullet wounds....Now he was in my mother's dining room, his hands on my shoulders, looking me in the eyes as directly as I would let him, and crying.
Luis Ramos' daughter is missing and Luis Ramos means to get her back. From skate rink to subway stop, train station to warehouse, Brooklyn to Bronx, Queens to Manhattan, apartment to brownstone, police station to friend's home, back alley to backstairs, Luis Ramos' unnamed nephew drags us through a crisp, concise narration of Luis Ramos' quest. The narrator's voice is so compelling, Luis Ramos' purpose so clear, it's impossible to put down the book for fear of missing a turn of phrase, a shade of irony, a shadow of premonition which might aid Luis Ramos in his quest.
I don't often power my way through a novel as I did The Concrete Maze by Steven Torres. When forced by the activities of daily living to take a break from the story, I wondered, "What will Luis Ramos do next? Will he talk to the cop again? Maybe the private investigator? Is the skate rink owner hiding something? Or maybe Luis Ramos should be concentrating on the security guard."
Gritty in a way that defines noir, yet poignant in its humanity, The Concrete Maze held me enthralled through every tiny victory and every crushing defeat. Even when it appears hope's departed, I read on, certain that if Luis Ramos couldn't deliver a happy ending, he'd at least deliver a satisfactory one.
One way writers learn to write is by reading and recognizing excellent craft. Steven Torres illustrates a mastery of the first person point of view with his use of a character involved up to his eyeballs in the drama, yet who manages to maintain enough distance to keep perspective. At story's end, we still do not know his name, his age, his occupation, or anything else another author might consider essential to include, yet, we know the narrator, perhaps better than we know Luis Ramos. His final actions blindside, leaving the reader to stare at the page, torn between jaw-dropping relief and unexpected despair.
I'll be thinking about Steven Torres' narrator for a long time. And I'll be looking for Steven Torres' next book.