By Victor Headley

Atlantic Monthly. 185 pp. $18

A decade has passed since the crack cocaine epidemic first began to manifest itself in the United States. Over the course of that decade the country witnessed an alarming rise in violent crime that has failed to show any signs of abating in spite of the billions of dollars law enforcement officials have poured into the drug war. Throughout the mid-'80s the crack epidemic -- and the horrific toll of violence and addiction it spawned -- remained a largely American phenomenon. Western European countries had their share of alcoholics, pill poppers and heroin addicts, but the crack craze failed to penetrate European shores. Sadly, that is no longer true. Now that the '90s are here, Europeans find themselves fighting their own debilitating cocaine wars.

The novel "Yardie," by Victor Headley, provides a stark look at the inner workings of a Jamaican drug gang caught up in a murderous London turf war, and one comes away with the painful sense that the dynamics driving the European crack trade will pose problems that are every bit as tragic and intractable as those we have experienced in the United States. First published in London by X Press, a small desktop operation, the novel arrives in America after already having established itself as a cult hit overseas. Traditional marketing methods were closed to X Press, and consequently "Yardie" was not sold in bookstores, but on the street outside music halls and nightclubs, where it picked up an enthusiastic following. Like a lot of underground hits, much of the novel's offbeat charm resides in the fact that it is a bad boy's book, giving us an uninhibited look at life on the other side of the law.

"Yardie" chronicles the story of "D.," a Jamaican street tough who slips into London on a stolen passport and yearns to establish himself as a major player in the burgeoning European crack trade. Sensing his chance for a once-in-a-lifetime break, D. steals a kilo of cocaine from the drug gang that controls the London street scene, and then teams up with a fellow expatriate to build his own tightly controlled network of labs, cooks, safe houses, street peddlers and soldiers. Aware that he has been targeted by the dealers he ripped off, D. quickly establishes a reputation on the street as a man as unafraid of using violence as he is of courting it. This is a quality that propels him to the top, and to get there D. rapes, D. murders -- but never gratuitously. Every move he makes is calculated to bring victory in the turf war initiated by his theft.

As the story progresses, Headley's attitude toward D. and the violence he perpetrates remains muted. Skilled at spinning a fast-paced tale, Headley gives us a protagonist without a conscience -- a fact that makes D. frighteningly vivid, frightening real. He lives not by the laws of civil society, but by the law of the street, and this allows him to kill without remorse. At one point, D. encounters an aging Rastafarian by the name of Piper and, in the Jamaican dialect that gives "Yardie" an extra measure of appeal, the following exchange ensues:

" 'T'ings rough out deh, you know, Rasta,' {D.} said softly.

" 'True, t'ings rough, dat is why me cry fe see the way we ah kill one another.'

"Piper had a grave look on his face. He continued. 'One time, if two man have a quarrel dem would fight it out with dem strength. At the worst, one would get cut up but not'ing more. Nowadays, it's pure killing. And fe wha'? Vanity; gold, money, drugs, even woman. Truly, man worse than beast.'

"The Dread shook his head sadly. D. didn't say anything. He knew Piper was right."

And yet, D. is not about to align himself with the nonviolent, community-oriented philosophy that Piper represents. He is an outcast. For D., playing by the rules means stepping back into the grinding urban poverty that he is so desperately trying to escape. As one of the Jamaican expatriates that D. befriends puts it: "Hear dis: if you grow up poor in Jamaica, with no education, drugs is the only t'ing that will take you out of the trap. Either you take a chance or you stay and suffer."

Most law-abiding citizens recoil from the choice Headley poses for D. -- and yet, most of us never confront the fear, hunger, homelessness and squalid poverty that ensnare millions of children growing up in the unforgiving ghettos of the world. By bringing D. so vividly to life, Victor Headley has written a fast-paced morality play that is set in the midst of the most violent, most recalcitrant epidemic of our time.

"Yardie" is not a pretty novel: It is a brilliant snapshot of the world as it is, as opposed to the way we'd like it to be.

"Yardie" is Victor Headley's first novel. We can only hope it won't be his last. Tim Wells's most recent book is "Drug Wars."