'Sleepers,' by Lorenzo Carcaterra. 404 pages. New York: Ballantine Books. $23
There is already serious controversy in the legal and publishing worlds of New York over whether 'Sleepers' is non-fiction, with names and dates changed to protect the innocent, or fiction, because no one can remember the case or find it in the newspaper libraries.
Frankly, I don't give a damn. Fact or fiction, 'Sleepers' is a hell of a read; a taut, compelling sociology of lower-middle-class tribalism in Hell's Kitchen, the tense neighborhood west of Broadway, in the early and mid-1960s.
As described by Lorenzo Carcaterra, who writes that the book is his story, Hell's Kitchen was a place where people bet on go-cart races, where stealing was acceptable, as long as the victim didn't live in the neighborhood, where a fight was the quickest and clearest way to settle most arguments, where boys often lost their virginity on hot rooftops on summer nights and where drunk men in dead-end jobs routinely beat their wives and children.
'Sleepers,' constructed like a novel, is written in three dramatic sections, each building in brisk chapters that keep the pace as fast as a dog race and the mood as foreboding as a call from the loan shark.
Part one takes Carcaterra and three inseparable friends from ages 9 through 13, as they learn their way around the Kitchen and figure out how to make it on the streets and survive the violence of their homes.
Despite their innate intelligence, their affection for books and their homage to the local parish, the boys slip almost inevitably into the neighborhood pattern of shoplifting, street brawling and running errands for a local crime boss.
The section ends with a prank - stealing a hot dog vendor's cart - that ends in tragedy when the cart tumbles down some stairs and nearly kills a passer-by. Carcaterra's account of the crazed vendor chasing the frightened boys is so precise, the reader feels like a spellbound observer of a little street drama. The boys are sentenced to the Wilkinson Home for Boys (a fictitious name), really a juvenile concentration camp. Inmates are beaten, raped and abused in every unimaginable way by guards for whom no torture is too gruesome not to enjoy.
Carcaterra describing his nightmares: 'I see hands slap bare skin. I see pants torn and shirts ripped apart. I feel hot breath against my neck, and strong legs wrapped around mine. I hear groans and frenzied laughter, my back and neck wet from another man's sweat and spit. I smell cigarette smoke and hear mute talk once it's over, the jokes, the comments, the promises to return.
In part three, a decade after they are released, two of the boys have become murderers, one a lawyer and one, Carcaterra, a cub reporter at the New York Daily News. The section is given over to revenge. The murderers kill one of the guards who tormented them and the lawyer, an assistant district attorney for about six months, pleads to try the case and then purposely takes a dive. In the process, he exposes the Wilkinson Home and the guards. An investigation and reforms ensue.
The book raises all kinds of ethical questions. For one, the assistant district attorney breaks the law in order to end the horror of Wilkinson. But in doing so, he frees two killers who kill again before they wind up dead.
Now, there are questions about Carcaterra's ethics. He acknowledges that many details have been changed. And the dialogue could not possibly be reconstructed as it appears here. But the big question is whether the basic incident even occurred.
David Stout, a New York Times reporter who did a recent story on the controversy, said in an interview that he could find nothing in the paper's extensive library, or anywhere else, that even resembled the case. But he quoted Carcaterra as insisting, 'The story is true. Names and dates are changed.
Stephen Seplow has been an editor and reporter for Knight Ridder newspapers for 25 years. He is now reporting for the Philadelphia Inquirer on the impact of television on America. He also served as Moscow bureau chief, metropolitan editor, national editor and national reporter for the Inquirer. He was news editor in the Washington bureau for Knight Ridder. He was raised in Brooklyn, NY.