By Lorenzo Carcaterra

Ballantine. 404 pp. $23

By Trey Graham

"THIS IS so you don't forget me," said the guard as he raped the boy. It was night in a New York State juvenile detention facility circa 1968. For 10 months the boy had suffered unspeakable brutalities at the hands of the quartet of sadistic jailers who ruled the place, while the warden turned a blind eye. There had been beatings, starvation, physical and psychological torture, even sexual abuse, but now, on the eve of the boy's release, came the worst. Bound and gagged, he watched as the guards brought his three best friends into his cell and handcuffed them together, then gang-raped them with such violence that all three were bloodied and one was left with a broken arm. Then the ringleader turned his attentions to the boy, stripping him, beating him, raping him as well. And the guard bade him, the terrified 13-year-old boy: Never forget.

Lorenzo Carcaterra did not forget -- nor did his friends, two of whom murdered their chief torturer years later, when he had the misfortune to wander into a restaurant in their neighborhood. In his controversial memoir Sleepers, Carcaterra remembers those harrowing months in the Wilkinson Home for Boys, remembers the terrible accident that sent him there, remembers the murder and the trial and the elaborate vengeance he and his friends exacted against the other guards. He tells it all in spare, stylish prose, his story memorable less for complexity or beauty than for relentless momentum and sheer drama. Of course there's some doubt that any of it ever happened--but more on that later. For now, let's take it at face value.

Sleepers is a thriller, to be sure, but it is equally a wistful hymn to another age. In the late '50s and early '60s, the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood where the author and his tight-knit band of friends grew up was an environs marked by clannishness and loyalty, "a place of innocence ruled by corruption" where residents harbored an abiding disregard for the law. Instead they carried a healthy respect for what Carcaterra describes as "a structured code of behavior and an unwritten set of rules"; brawls and even murder were considered acceptable redress in matters of honor or illegal "business," but in general, Carcaterra remembers, "crimes against the people of the neighborhood were not permitted." When the rules were broken, retribution was quick and often brutal. A drug dealer who sold a Hell's Kitchen youth a fatal bag of tainted heroin was strangled and left hanging from a lamp post; a mugger who snatched an elderly woman's purse was next seen with arms and legs broken and two fingers severed from each hand.

There is an unmistakable air of nostalgia to Carcaterra's descriptions of this loosely controlled mayhem. In childhood, he and his three friends were "united in trust," "thieves who stole more for fun than profit," good-hearted ne'er-do-wells who "raced pigeons across rooftops and dove off the 12th Avenue piers into the waters of the Hudson." They read adventure novels and played pranks on librarians, frolicked in the spray of hydrants and tormented the nuns at midday Mass. They were comrades in arms, blood brothers, soulmates.

Here I have a complaint: Carcaterra is given to one-sentence paragraphs fraught with foreboding: "We thought we would know each other forever" and the like. It's as though he's a film director who doesn't quite trust his footage and hires Michael Douglas to intone momentous snippets of voice-over narration. It's likely that he sensed what will seem obvious to most readers -- that the portraits of his three brothers-in-arms are too sketchily drawn to bring them entirely to life. Early on, for instance, he explains the nicknames they gave each other -- Butter, the Count, Shakespeare and Spots -- but so tenuous are his characterizations that the noms de guerre never stick; he almost always uses both full name and nickname, set off by parentheses or dashes, to identify his friends. (He notes in the introduction that he's gone to some trouble to conceal the true identities of the players in this story, which may be the problem.) Then, too, Carcaterra's dialogue seems improbably tight. The surly grocer on the corner, the mob kingpin, the savvy priest who's the linchpin in the carefully orchestrated trial defense -- all his characters sound like something out of Raymond Chandler. Not that that's bad; it's just more evocative of fiction. Which, as it turns out, Sleepers may be. Several newspapers and magazines, including The Washington Post, have reported on growing doubts as to whether these events actually took place. The publisher claims to have proof that they did; cynics hint that Caracterra may have slapped the "true story" label on a novel to ensure a bigger movie-rights sale. Only a genuinely despicable person would do that sort of thing, of course.Controversy aside, Sleepers is undeniably powerful, an enormously affecting and intensely human story.

Trey Graham is a Washington-based writer.