Lorenzo Carcaterra’s account of growing up a juvenile delinquent in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen is described as being a true story, yet Sleepers is so full of changed names and scrambled dates ”to protect the identities of those involved” that the reader can’t help but be suspicious of its authenticity. For a memoir, the amount of reconstructed dialogue is tremendous, and minor scenes are evoked with improbably novelistic detail.
Another reason the book fails to completely convince is the author’s sloppy social history: In the mid-’60s you wouldn’t, for instance, have thrown down two dollar bills just to pay for two slices of pizza and an orange soda (one dollar would’ve gotten you change). And you wouldn’t have played Bob Seger’s ”Against the Wind” in 1979; the song wasn’t released till the following year. Little mistakes like that keep cropping up. If Carcaterra gets those kinds of things wrong, why should we believe what he tells us about sexual torture and murder in a youth correctional facility, or a rigged homicide trial?
Am I being too picky? Maybe I am. After all, Carcaterra’s first memoir, A Safe Place — about his father, who was once convicted of manslaughter — had no such problems. Maybe I’m just looking for excuses not to believe what I read in Sleepers. Because if the story is true, it’s a depressingly sad one — an updated, sleazier version of those Depression-era Jimmy Cagney-Pat O’Brien wasted-youth pictures.
Following a prank that turns criminal (a stolen hot-dog cart ends up barreling down subway stairs and crushing an old man against a wall), Carcaterra and three friends — ”John Reilly,” ”Tommy Marcano,” and ”Michael Sullivan” — are remanded to the Wilkinson Home for Boys in upstate New York. (In street slang, a ”sleeper” is any kid sentenced to longer than nine months in a state-managed facility.) They’re assaulted and raped by a clique of sadistic guards, locked away for weeks at a time in pitch-black, rat-infested holes, forced to lick food off the floor. It makes that Turkish jail in Midnight Express seem almost tolerable.
But once again, those nagging questions about plausibility creep to mind. Would the guards really mount an inmate massacre disguised as a football game in front of a stadium full of townspeople? Could they really beat a kid to death in 1967 and get away with it completely? Would a bunch of 13- and 14-year-old boys really talk as if they’d had tough-guy dialogue custom-fitted for them by a Hollywood scriptwriter? (”Kill us all,” says one of them, to the most malevolent of his tormentors. ”Or sign yourself up for life in here. That’s the choice.”)
After Wilkinson, the narrative jumps ahead 11 years to 1979. And we get to see what imprisonment has done to the author and his best friends. Though embittered and emotionally scarred, Carcaterra and Sullivan have managed to forge respectable careers (Carcaterra as a reporter for the New York Daily News, Sullivan as a lawyer in the New York City district attorney’s office), but Reilly and Marcano, damaged ”beyond repair,” have become gunmen for hire. By accident, they bump into one of their former guards — and shoot him on the spot. Within 72 hours, they’re arrested and charged with the murder.
Now, this is where Carcaterra’s story demands a complete suspension of disbelief. Could real life possibly ever be this gimmicky? I know, I know, truth is stranger than fiction, but even Nancy Taylor Rosenberg might think twice before committing this plot twist to paper: The two killers are prosecuted by none other than their childhood buddy and fellow reform-school inmate, Michael Sullivan.
Consumed by a thirst for revenge, Sullivan conspires to try the case so ineptly that his friends will be found not guilty. Audacious doesn’t begin to cover his scheme. Outlandish comes closer, but if you can manage to take Carcaterra’s undocumented word for it, the courtroom episodes are engrossing stuff — especially when a neighborhood priest has to decide whether to commit perjury to help his former altar boys get away with murder.
Sleepers is a good story, all right — ugly as sin but fascinating. Truth be told, though, I don’t altogether believe it. C+