Luis J. Rodriguez

Rayo. 308 pp. $24.95

In his first novel, Luis J. Rodriguez gives an intimate, multi-generational history of a family surviving gang life in the Los Angeles barrios, which the author knew as a child and has written about in memoirs, poetry and short stories. Those earlier books (The Republic of East L.A., Always Running) brought the rough intensity of contemporary street life to the page. Now in Music of the Mill, Rodriguez has moved his focus back a generation to tell the story of Johnny Salcido, who struggles for a life in a Los Angeles steel mill.

The Salcido saga begins in the northern Mexican state of Sonora in 1943. Procopio Salcido, a hard-working 18-year-old, knows that his family's rural way of life is coming to an end when the government dams the nearest river, starving the farms and their people of water. So Procopio walks out of the house one morning and just keeps going. He winds up in Arizona, working in the mines, but is shot in the leg after helping lead a strike for better wages. He escapes with the lovely Eladia, a girl he met at the camp.

The teenage couple make their way to Los Angeles, where Procopio gets a grungy job cleaning up at a huge mill called Nazareth Steel (apparently a play on Bethlehem Steel). The massive, brutally run plant draws thousands of impoverished workers -- Mexicans, blacks and whites. On the mill floor, the union is dominated by a cell of the Ku Klux Klan, which preserves the trade skills and best paying jobs for whites. Blacks and Mexicans are relegated to infernally hot, dangerous, back-breaking labor. Still, the pay is comparatively good, and Procopio and Eladia settle in to their difficult life. As the years pass, their first-born son is killed in a suspicious accident at the mill. Another winds up an alcoholic. And finally there is Johnny, a fistful of teenage trouble, who gets out of jail, falls in love and enters the mill himself.

Rodriguez portrays the mill as a heroic microcosm of industrial America. There are brutal struggles between unions and management and clashes of race and culture on the foundry floor -- where it is all too easy for workers to arrange an "accident" to mutilate or kill rivals: One worker is impaled, another loses four fingers.

As Johnny ages, he learns lessons of good will from some of the men on the floor and lessons in brutality from the rest. It's not a nice place to work, but when the mill eventually closes, the Salcidos and thousands of other families are devastated. "Nothing in their lives or in their children's lives can compare with the years Johnny . . . had known when Nazareth was at its peak," Rodriguez writes, "when the electric furnaces rumbled day and night and the rolling mills and forges roared in frenzied intonations . . . when foremen sent out signals with their hands because they couldn't be heard amid the noise; when production goals were posted on huge plywood signs, and safety messages kept reminding the mill hands they were responsible for losing body parts or their lives; and when the terrible fate and great fortune of being a steelworker was sloughed off in the bars, card clubs, prostitutes and racing businesses."

Rodriguez sees all this in grand historical terms, and his narrative drive and compassion for the Salcidos shine through, giving the book restless energy. Some technical problems mar the story, though. Plot points -- a major union election, for example -- are set up, but there is not follow-through. The tense lapses from present to past and back again. The bad guys are cardboard racists who illustrate a position more than a person. The last third of the book is taken over by Johnny's daughter, Azucena. Her father and grandfather largely disappear, which is disappointing, because they are far more compelling characters.

By then, the mill is long gone, the Salcidos have moved to a new suburb, and their immigrant drive has lost its focus. Azucena is of Mexican descent, yes, but she's American now. The new life Procopio set out for two generations earlier has become filled with disillusionment, alcoholism, rape and bad breaks. The mill had its music, but nobody said it was pretty. *

Neely Tucker is a Washington Post staff writer and author of "Love in the Driest Season."

Luis J. Rodriguez