Book stirs on-line furor Hot lines: A controversial best-seller, 'Sleepers,' spurs heated discussion in computer on-line services. The book's recall has been demanded, and a legal probe may be next. But the book has its defenders

September 23, 1995|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

On-line, there has been no rest for "Sleepers," or its author, Lorenzo Carcaterra.

For weeks, the best-selling and controversial memoir about four boyhood friends who literally get away with murder has been dissected and defended, primarily in CompuServe, although other on-line services and the Internet have provided virtual battlefields as well.

In one CompuServe forum, true crime writers filed a petition, demanding the book's recall on the ground that it is an incredible fraud masquerading as nonfiction. Other writers -- most notably best-seller William Diehl, a friend of Mr. Carcaterra -- have sworn the book is authentic, or urged its critics to recall the recall.

This week, when New York lawyers announced they were seeking a criminal investigation of the book, interested browsers could find the complete text of their statement on line, provided by free-lance writer and chief "Sleepers" antagonist Jack Olsen. Gossipy tidbits from New York magazine also have been passed along, thanks to a network of writers determined not to let the issue die.

The book at the center of this controversy is undeniably successful -- a first printing of 170,000 by Ballantine Books, a $2 million-plus sale to Barry Levinson, many good reviews. But even some positive reviewers have wondered at the story's veracity. Mr. Carcaterra recounts the brutal treatment he and three friends receive at a reform school, and the ingenious revenge they exact years later. Two of the four, now hitmen, murder one of the sadistic guards, and their friend-the-prosecutor takes the case in order to throw it.

The debate is complicated by the author's disclaimer: "I have changed all the names and altered most of the dates in order to protect the identities of those involved." The statement makes it hard to check facts, since no one knows what the facts are.

Now Mr. Carcaterra's grammar school, Sacred Heart, one of the few unmasked locations, has retained lawyers who claim Mr. Carcaterra's school records undermine key assertions in "Sleepers." They also say one of the parish priests is libeled by the book.

It's all more fodder for the on-line critics. But the CompuServe forum was hopping even when nothing was really happening with "Sleepers."

"Without the Internet, this debate would not exist," says Lowell Cauffiel, a Michigan-based true crime writer who signed the on-line petition. "There might have been a few letters to the editor written, and fewer published. We might have made a few phone calls among ourselves and said 'Go to hell' to one another. But that would have been it."

At one point, the postings became so vitriolic that a system operator had to chide its participants, reminding them to avoid personal insults.

"I think there's a great danger to this," Mr. Diehl, 70, best known for "Sharky's Machine," says in a telephone interview from his home in Saint Simons, Ga. A friend of Mr. Carcaterra since the early 1980s, he says he has met two of the principles involved.

He is troubled by the tone of the on-line debate and his sense that writers are ganging up on his friend out of sheer sour grapes. He thinks some postings border on libel and has decided to leave the contentious on-line writer forums, returning to his first love, the movie trivia forum.

"Hey, I'm Irish -- all four grandparents -- I love a good fight," he posted at one point. "However this one seems a little one-sided: me against 8 writers, the NYTimes, and a couple of other newspapers. Under these conditions, kicking and biting should be fair."

Another true crime writer, Gary C. King of Las Vegas, Nev., says the petition sets a far more dangerous precedent than Mr. Carcaterra's book, on which he will not comment, pro or con.

Ann Rule, one of the best known true writers on-line, has decided to stay out of the "Sleepers" discussion. "My feeling is if a writer does good work and sticks to her own ethics, there's no need to go out screaming and caterwauling against other writers," she says from her Seattle home.

Agents and editors have been drawn to the on-line discussion. Even Peter Gethers, Mr. Carcaterra's editor at Ballantine, answered Mr. Olsen via e-mail after seeing what had been printed to date. (An excerpt: "If you actually bothered to find out the truth behind the incredibly irresponsible media coverage of the book . . . my guess is that you would be ashamed of the mindless way you've been running off at the mouth.")

Mr. Olsen, 70, the author of 30 books, is the undisputed leader in the attack on "Sleepers." He is blunt in his assessment of the book -- "The biggest literary hoax since Clifford Irving" -- and relentless in his rhetoric.

"I knew by the time I reached page 3 that 'Sleepers' was a shuck, and a very sloppy one at that," he wrote at one point. Asked about critics and readers who don't mind because the book is so compelling, he replies in a telephone interview, "There are people who don't care if they wear a Rolex watch with Timex works."

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