Chris McGinley stops by with a book review of Edwin Torres’ Q&A. McGinley teaches middle school in Lexington, KY. His stories have appeared in Out of the Gutter, Yellow Mama, and Near to the Knuckle. – David
In the 1977 paperback edition of Edwin Torres’ Q&A, there’s a photo of the author inside the front cover, a good-looking, young Latino with his shirt unbuttoned in the fashion of the time. A gold chain hangs on his neck and his arms are crossed in a gesture that exudes cool and tough at the same time. A caption underneath reads, “A lot of the friends I grew up with are in jail now. I know. I put some of them there.” Underneath the photo, the publisher tells us something else about Torres: “Born in East Harlem’s el barrio–he knows the streets. Former Assistant D.A., now a criminal court judge, he knows the cops and the hoods. Edwin Torres–he knows how to write.”
It’s a marketing approach that probably wouldn’t go over nowadays, or at least the language would be re-cast. But it’s a great hook for a novel that’s been eclipsed by Torres’ After Hours, later re-branded as Carlito’s Way after the Brian DePalma film of 1993. Even Torres’ earlier Carlito novel, originally titled Carlito’s Way, remains more popular than the work he wrote in between these two. Yet Q&A is a fantastic book, a mixture of police procedural and legal thriller like the dated hook of the inside cover suggests. In fact, it is much more ambitious than Torres’ other books in its broad thematic scope, and probably could only have been pulled off by someone like Torres, a Puerto Rican street kid who made good first as a lawyer and then as a judge. Its unflinching look at race and class, along with its stylistic inventiveness and clever dialogue, make it great reading for both newbies and those who haven’t tackled it in a while.
Q&A is an odd novel to read nowadays, and the language and tone might disarm a younger reader. Put simply, the book would never be published today, at least not on a big press like Avon was at the time. The characters we are supposed to like are racist, sexist, homophobic and culturally myopic in every way imaginable. Today publishers avoid such work as a rule, and the larger houses even employ readers to scan for “offensive material.” Q&A wouldn’t make it past page 5. It’s too bad, though, because in large part it’s the “sensitive” material here that recommends this (neglected?) classic of the genre.
On the one hand, newly appointed Assistant District Attorney Al Reilly represents moral integrity in a world where police corruption and political double-dealing are the rule rather than the exception. His own boss encourages Reilly to drop an investigation into a powerful cop who, despite his criminal methods (or because of them) serves the D.A.’s office in ways that few others can. But the noble Reilly naively boasts, “If he’s dirty, he goes.” Though Reilly continues the investigation, he comes to some sobering realizations in the end. The pressures on him, and on every cop, con, and pol in the novel, are such that to counter the status quo–a culture of graft, bribery, and murder–is to commit career suicide. Thus Reilly eventually accepts the rules of a system that has institutionalized a hatred of “kikes,” “wops,” “niggers,” “fags,” and other groups for which various epithets are voiced throughout the novel. Ironically, Reilly’s own racism, so internalized that he doesn’t even see it, has cost him the love of his life.
The cops, hoods, and lawyers in the novel must navigate this dangerous terrain in order to effect whatever goal they seek: arrest, prosecution, theft, collusion, professional ambition, even murder. Some characters, like Detectives Sam Chapman and John Valentin, seem accepting of the hierarchical and prejudicial nature of their world. In fact, they seem downright playful about it, even if it means disparaging their own ethnic groups. Of course, others are more malevolent. Lieutenant Guido Brennan is half Irish and half Italian, “the bad halves” as Chapman says. He’s a sort of repository for all that is wrong in the world of the novel. Without the social pedigree of Reilly or his intellectual boss, the politically minded Peter Quinn, Brennan will forever remain a street cop. In more ways than one, he serves Quinn by covering up collusion and taking care of problems that might compromise Quinn, and by extension those above him. Through intimidation, violence, and murder, Brennan makes a name for himself, though as one of his colleagues says, “he’s not a well man.”
Torres’ strength in writing Brennan is in identifying the complexity of his situation. The street cop is restricted by class, for one, a fact that limits his career potential as much as it explains his violence, again, performed in the service of the elite Quinn (who references Joyce, Dostoevsky, and Shakespeare) and his subordinates–men still above Brennan. Even the mobsters he colludes with condescend to him. “I’m a wop only by half,” Brennan says to them, “and you guys would be the first to remind me. I know where I stand.”
Yes, Brennan is despicable, but he’s a product of the system, one based on class and ethnic prejudice. A blurb on the back of the paperback reads, “It’s not always easy to tell good guys from bad. And Guido Brennan is one bad-ass cop.” Bad-ass. Is that good? Bad? Both? Without a touch of heavy-handedness, Torres writes Brennan, not as a sympathetic character per se–indeed, the reader will hate him–but as a toxic by-product of the criminal justice system and the political realities of the time. He’s needed, but he’s also a danger, something to wash your hands of once he’s served his purpose. Maybe the blurb inside the front cover is not as corny as it seems. Maybe it does require someone with Torres’ unique experience to write such a character, someone who knows the “cops and the hoods,” a Puerto Rican from el barrio who also happens to possess the experience of a Criminal Court judge.
And it’s true, Torres is a rare type who can actually write the parts and make them sound authentic. Stylistically, the novel manages to reflect all of the different ethnicities and factions, and their unique languages, too. To wit, Torres can write sharp, funny dialogue across the widely different groups of characters he represents. Consider the banter between veteran detectives Chapman and Valentin, a repartee that runs throughout the novel:
“Imagine. Me, the guy that can hear a roach walking on yogurt,” Valentin said.
“Yeah, with galoshes. I heard about that arrest. I also hear you’re the man that uses Preparation H for an earache and been bending over to hear ever since. I mean that’s what I hear.” Chapman beamed at Valentin.
“No more. The doctor put earplugs in my asshole.”
By contrast, Torres frequently enters into the vernacular of the many lawyers running around in the novel, but without the dryness and stale legalese that characterizes so many courtroom thrillers. In one scene Reilly and the jaded lawyer, Preston Pearlstein, lament the emergent strength of the city’s Legal Aid Department:
“How you doing?” Reilly smiled.
“Terrible, horrible. I just lost another client to the Legal Aid. They’re wipin’ us out,” Pearlstein lamented.
“You’ll always make a buck.”
“The private bar is being cannibalized by our own kind in the fuckin’ legislature. It ain’t bad enough with the Legal Aid. Now they’re gonna have appellate division assignments where the state pays the lawyer. All on account of that fuckin’ Gideon versus Wainwright. We’re gonna have subsidized crime.”
Torres’ work with unconventional narrative voice also adds color to the novel. Specifically, at times he shifts from third to first person in the narration, but not in the spirit of self-conscious “literary” experimentation. Instead these passages offer a brief foray into the mindset of a character without the use of the contrived dialogue seen in the work of so many lesser authors in the genre. The shifts are brief and never risk disconnecting the reader from the larger narration. There’s an exemplary passage in which Puerto Rican gangster Bobby Texidor believes he smells one of Brennan’s set-ups in his meeting with some Italian mobsters. Note how the narration shifts from third to first person, and then back to third person so seamlessly.
Bobby Texidon remained seated. He plucked my wings. Now he’s trying to muzzle my beak. Brennan’s isolating me. He’s cutting me off from all my bases. So when he jumps from the tree, I’ll be a grounded sparrow hopping on one leg. No contest. That’s what these wops want. Don’t be a stool; be a clay pigeon. Kiss may ass.
He returned to the party table.
Like the Carlito novels, Q & A is a page turner, but it’s so much more than such a commonplace term could convey. Without a hint of didacticism, the book makes a statement about the complexities that underlay the operation of the justice system and the criminal organizations that keep it in business, sometimes in ironic ways. If you haven’t read it in awhile, pick it up again. If you haven’t read it at all, what are you waiting for?