Growing up in Hell's Kitchen on the West Side of Manhattan in the '60s, Lorenzo Carcaterra first met his three best friends over a lunch—which was being devoured by pro wrestlers. Klondike Bill, Bo Bo Brazil and Haystack Calhoun were at the Holiday Inn, and Lorenzo, Michael, John and Tommy were outside with their noses pressed against the restaurant window, watching them inhale slabs of pie.
"They don't even stop to chew," said John in wonder.
"Guys that big don't have to chew," Tommy explained.
The first part of Carcaterra's memoir is filled with such delicious exchanges. It depicts four high-spirited boys carving out a surprisingly idyllic childhood—swimming with the eels in the Hudson River, goofing on the nuns in church, tussling with a Puerto Rican girl gang—all while dodging beatings and beratings in their tenement homes in a notoriously tight-knit, Mob-controlled neighborhood.
Then in 1967 the boys' urban Eden comes to grief when one of their pranks backfires: pushing a hot-dog cart down a flight of subway stairs, they nearly kill a man and are sent to an upstate youth home. The story turns into a catalog of horrors, as the boys (known as sleepers because they are sentenced to more than nine months in the reformatory) are repeatedly beaten and raped by the vicious guards.
Carcaterra resumes his tale 10 years later. The time in prison has utterly changed the friends: Lorenzo is a copy-boy at the New York Daily News and Michael an assistant district attorney, but Tommy and John have both become hit men. One night in 1979 the leader of the sadistic guards chances to visit a Hell's Kitchen bar, and John and Tommy kill him.
But Carcaterra's saga does not end here. In the book's most dramatic and already controversial pages, Michael manages to get the D.A. to allow him to prosecute John and Tommy, and he conspires with Lorenzo to purposely lose the case. Some critics have accused Carcaterra, who is married to PEOPLE executive editor Susan Toepfer, of fictionalizing his tale—noting, for example, that all names but the author's have been changed and no assistant D.A. just six months on the job would prosecute a homicide. Carcaterra has angrily denied the charges. Fact or fiction, Sleepers is a compelling read. (Ballantine, $23)