BOOK REVIEW / The heat in Hell's Kitchen

SLEEPERS by Lorenzo Carcaterra, Century pounds 15.99
ONE roasting afternoon 28 years ago, in a rough patch of central Manhattan called Hell's Kitchen, four young boys stole a hot-dog cart. Not yet teenagers, they were already sharp apprentice criminals. This time, however, they fumbled: the vendor gave determined chase, they panicked, and let the heavy cart roll out of control down the steps of a subway station, crippling a passer-by.

The boys were sent to an American borstal. For an endless, infernal year there they were assaulted and raped by their guards. On release, two of the boys became contract killers, the other two a journalist and a lawyer. Years later, the contract killers met one of their guards in a bar and shot him. The journalist and the lawyer then completed the revenge by turning the killers' murder trial into an expose of the borstal's brutality. The killers walked free; the lawyer abandoned his career and emigrated to England; and the journalist - as journalists are inclined to do - made the whole story into a book.

It's a good book. Not great - too often Carcaterra caricatures his agonised memories into cartoonish tough-guy cliche - but a quick, brutal read. And goodness has brought him the success that usually eludes greatness: Sleepers recently elbowed its way into the top five American bestsellers, while a big-star film version (now in production) has already made him another $2 million.

Carcaterra is a populist, with years on a New York tabloid and a television cop-show to his credit, and his book keeps an eye on the melodramatic main chance throughout. His Hell's Kitchen is a tough-but-fair neighbourhood of church-attending mobsters and Irishmen with a "knack for the verbal hit and run", described in one-liners as manly and self-mythologising as Mean Streets or The Godfather. In the borstal, Carcaterra and his friends gain brief relief from their torment with a heroic American football game against their guards ("For those ninety minutes, we were once again free").

The rare understated passages here are far more powerful. The hot-dog cart's tumble echoes the slow, tragic arc of the falling pram in Battleship Potemkin: "Watching ... was as painful as trying to keep it from going down ... Hot dogs, onions, sodas, ice, napkins and sauerkraut jumped out in unison, splattering against the sides of the stairwell, bouncing and smacking the front of a Florida vacation poster ... " Later, some of the borstal scenes are horrifying for their restraint, Carcaterra unwilling or unable to do more than suggest the foul detail of what happened in his cell - a deadening of his senses being the only way to endure it. When he suddenly reveals rats "feasting on my cuts" in solitary confinement, no amount of prior exposure to other prison literature (and one of Carcaterra's friends takes The Count of Monte Cristo inside as a talisman) can suppress your shudders.

The power of these moments doesn't come from authorial tone alone, though; you're thinking, this happened. Or did it? In America, reporters and residents of Hell's Kitchen have questioned the truth of Carcaterra's story. He has been accused of inventing characters and situations, of having what Time called "an elastic and accommodating definition of non-fiction". This seems unfair, more a reflection of the official obsession of the American press with verification and objectivity (often quickly abandoned when it comes to its own practice of crime reporting), than of any clever deceit by Carcaterra, who baldly admits on page seven that "I have changed many of the names and altered most of the dates, locations and identifying characteristics of people and institutions to protect the identities of those involved". But the book's plain sentences and explicitly confessional style do try to suggest authenticity - indeed, that is their main selling point. So, if the accusations are true, he can't be absolved entirely of giving his facts a varnish of fiction.

The more serious problem here, however, is moral. Carcaterra's central argument and narrative fulcrum is that imprisonment brutalised him and his friends, ending their innocence and justifying their later perjury and violence. Yet here at least his account is too honest for his own good: in the opening section he describes in sickening detail robberies and assaults he and his friends committed as children, before they went to borstal. The young Carcaterra himself runs errands for and looks up to the local Mafia boss and hopes to emulate him in time.

Knowing this, and seeing the way the author romanticises the viciousness of Hell's Kitchen ("Don't you guys have to go out and shoot somebody?" "We always got time for a song") make it hard, ultimately, to sympathise with him. The difference between his childhood streets and his adolescent prison becomes difficult to spot. But I'm sure the movie will clear that awkwardness up.