Perilous streets portrayed in gritty Philadelphia story

October 09, 1994|By Judith Wynn

"Third and Indiana" is named after a Philadelphia street corner favored by urban drug dealers and their local and suburban clientele. Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Steve Lopez begins his gritty novel about inner-city strife with the poignant image of a young Hispanic mother riding a bicycle alone through the streets after dark. Ofelia Santoro looks for her runaway son Gabriel every night in the "Badlands" -- a volatile part of town run by an "army of young dealers waiting in the ranks to feed a national thirst."

Fourteen-year-old Gabriel bought Ofelia the bike with his earnings as lookout boy for a local narcotics lord. Gabriel hates to worry her, but he wants to make the big bucks that only drug-dealing pays -- so he can buy more gifts for his lonely mother. What's more, Gabriel's ruthless boss -- a hideously deformed sadist named Diablo -- will kill Gabriel if he tries to drop out of the gang.

"Third and Indiana" has been likened to screenwriter Richard Price's 1992 novel about New Jersey crack dealers, "Clockers." Mr. Lopez's book doesn't match "Clockers' " panoramic scope or its intense preoccupation with the social forces that drive the illicit drug "executive" and his sales crew of street kids. (x Nevertheless, "Third and Indiana" packs a mean wallop on its own, more limited terms.

The two principal narrators are the depressed Ofelia and a manic, down-and-out jazz guitarist named Eddie Passarelli. Ofelia is a handsome, urban earth mother who has psychic premonitions about Gabriel that she paints on her kitchen wall. Lopez imbues her scenes with the melancholy, supernatural-tinged lyricism of a Toni Morrison novel.

Brash, slangy, self-sabotaging Eddie, on the other hand, seems to have dropped in from one of Elmore Leonard's low-life thrillers. Eddie's been told that he resembles Bill Clinton -- "Which he didn't necessarily take as a compliment, considering how gray and fat-faced the president was." Eddie befriends Gabriel one day after getting dumped by both his wife and his mistress.

Gabriel is fleeing his murderous boss, Diablo. Eddie suggests that they pay off Diablo by stealing an expensive pinky ring from Philly's Mayor De Marco, who has just died of heart disease. Gabriel is skinny enough to slip through an unlocked mortuary window after hours and pry the ring off the mayor's fat, clammy finger. But what pawnbroker in his right mind would fence such a widely recognized item?

Meanwhile, an anonymous sidewalk artist has been giving the city bad national press by sketching the bodies of youngsters slain in Philadelphia's drug wars. There are 27 drawings so far, extending down Broad Street toward the heart of Center City's spectacular skyline.

Mr. Lopez spins a macabre, pessimistic comedy of errors about a city that sentimentalizes its corrupt former mayor while its young people are busy killing each other for drug money. There's also a half-hearted subplot about Ofelia and an anti-drug-crusading priest that slows down the pace without adding much to the story.

Fortunately, first-time novelist Lopez keeps most of the action rumbling efficiently along to its explosive conclusion. "Third and Indiana" is an angry, memorable testimony to "young voices silenced, human futures wasted."

Ms. Wynn is a writer who lives in Somerville, Mass.

Title: "Third and Indiana"

Author: Steve Lopez

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 305 pages, $21.95

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