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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : A Horrifying 'Memoir' of Rough Justice That Rings False : SLEEPERS by Lorenzo Carcaterra ; Ballantine Books $23, 404 pages


It's tough to put down "Sleepers," Lorenzo Carcaterra's shocker about sexual outrage, rough justice and sweet revenge on the streets of New York in the early 1960s.

But it's equally tough to figure out whether "Sleepers" is really a memoir, as the author insists ("This is a true story," he writes, "about friendships that run deeper than blood") or a novel thinly camouflaged as autobiography.

"Sleepers" is neatly divided into three parts--the author's childhood in the Manhattan neighborhood known as Hell's Kitchen, the hell and horror that he endured when an adolescent prank landed him in a "boy's home" for youthful offenders in Upstate New York, and an act of vengeance that takes place a decade later in a New York courtroom.

Neatness, I suppose, is part of the problem here. The plotting is crisp and carefully paced, as if the author had charted his way from one "plot point" to another with a screenplay already in mind. The good guys are almost too good; the bad guys are demonic. And the dialogue between Carcaterra and his neighborhood buddies sounds like stylized banter rather than conversation.

Carcaterra's account of a childhood in Hell's Kitchen, "a place of innocence ruled by corruption," is convincing enough. The mean streets somehow resemble a medieval village; the mob is so powerful that no one dares mug an old lady or push heroin to the local kids. And yet there is an undercurrent of violence that denies young Lorenzo and his friends "the luxury of childhood."

Lorenzo and his crew are shown as high-spirited kids who love to read "Classics Illustrated" comic books and whose antics are essentially innocent. And then, suddenly, one prank involving the theft of a hot dog cart goes terribly wrong, and the pranksters end up in prison.

The Wilkinson Home for Boys turns out to be an institution so horrific that we begin to suspect that Carcaterra is allowing himself a bit more than the customary degree of poetic license.

For example, we are asked to believe that 13-year-old Lorenzo and the rest of the young inmates are routinely used as sexual playthings and objects of torture by prison guards who are themselves a gang of sadists and sodomites--all without the slightest protest by the warden or the single decent but ineffectual guard that Carcaterra allows us to see.

And yet Carcaterra suggests that Lorenzo and his chums were bold enough to turn a football game between guards and inmates into a daring act of insurrection that ends in even more physical and sexual torment. I kept wondering how the big game would look on the big screen--and I wondered if the author had the same thought.

The last third of "Sleepers" is devoted to an impossibly elaborate conspiracy among the four boys from Hell's Kitchen, now grown up and back on the streets, and virtually the whole cast of characters from the old neighborhood. The object of the conspiracy is revenge against their old tormentors, which is sweet enough when it finally comes, but the workings of the conspiracy exceed even the most fevered scenarios of the O.J. Simpson trial.

Something terrible happened to Lorenzo Carcaterra when he was growing up in Hell's Kitchen: "The haunting memories of childhood are always close at hand," he writes. And perhaps his experiences bear some strong resemblance to the latter-day urban Gothic that he has written in "Sleepers."

Exactly how closely his life resembles his art is one secret that Carcaterra does not reveal. But a clue may be found in a fragment of a song by Van Morrison that Carcaterra quotes at the very end of "Sleepers," as if to suggest that the book is an effort to exorcise some of the demons of his own childhood.

"I see it all now," goes the lyric, "through the eyes of a child."

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