PART CRIME TALE, PART COMING-OF-AGE saga, this richly observed first novel is a supple blend of trade-union strife, family dysfunction, ethnic loyalty and the grim toll of manual labor. In the building boom of the mid-'80s, two Irish brothers from The Bronx find their lives on a collision course in New York City's Hell's Kitchen. Paddy Adare, a hit man for the Irish mob that runs all the construction sites that the Mafia doesn't, sees his future slipping away on a sea of gang infighting. Brother Billy, a college graduate headed for law school, spends a last summer as a sandhog. He labors in a vast new water tunnel 800 feet below the streets of Manhattan, a site that has claimed more lives than any U.S. construction site. The pair are put to violent tests of courage and conscience when the mob sets out to break a strike by the sandhogs.
First novelist Kelly—a political consultant to trade unions—who paid his way through college doing construction work, has a sympathetic ear for his turf. Billy's childhood pal Mickey Lawless, a charming pathological thief, describes himself as "a Gandhi kinda criminal." With a relentless tempo and perfect pitch, Payback is right on the money. (Knopf, $23)