CHANGO'S FIRE

By Ernesto Quinonez

Rayo. 276 pp. $23.95

Not long into "Chango's Fire," one stops to ask: What exactly is burning -- New York's barrio or an inner fire? The answer, evidently, is both.

This is Ernesto Quinonez's second novel after the acclaimed "Bodega Dreams." As in that book, the world of "Chango's Fire" -- Chango is the god of thunder and lightning in the Caribbean religion Santeria, or the way of the saints -- is embedded in the life of Spanish Harlem. We're invited in for a visit, but Quinonez seems to want to convince us that no outsider could really understand the barrio.

This may be why he's chosen a hard-to-know protagonist, Julio Santana, a professional arsonist. He's employed by a crime boss to burn down tenements so their owners can collect insurance, rebuild and gentrify the barrio. Torching the barrio has its benefits: Julio has saved up some money and used the proceeds to buy an apartment for his family. His mother and father didn't ask questions about the source of his sudden wealth, and his new apartment was seen as just part of the gentrification.

But Julio hates his job and hates himself for destroying the neighborhood he loves. He decides to break away from the business, which isn't easy. The self-loathing Julio begins going to night school and holding down a real job. But just at the point when he thinks he can go legitimate, his boss tricks him into one last torching. The story, then, traces Julio's attempt to stop setting fires even as he's looking to kindle something within.

Throughout the book, Julio's brooding and anger bubble to the surface. He hates not just himself but others as well, particularly the people who control the city and the vanguard of white people moving into Spanish Harlem. In Julio's vision, the arriving yuppies are pretty much soulless, clueless about the heart of the barrio and miserably tactless in dealing with the locals. He is especially contemptuous of the trendy coffee bars crowding out traditional haunts, and he bristles at modern architectural details like the spikes set in cement that prevent people from hanging out on the front stoop of his new digs as they might have in the old days.

But Julio's prejudices against the young invaders start to be overturned when he falls for one of them, a blond art dealer named Helen. He might hate himself for that, too, but he's smitten anyway. Unfortunately, Quinonez doesn't convince readers that such a love affair could be real. Julio's disdain for most outsiders comes and goes, as it does with Helen. For her part, she sticks with him for no apparent reason.

Still, "Chango's Fire" succeeds in its rich characterizations of the people of the barrio, led by Julio, whose complexity and sensitivity carry the story. The ensemble also includes Julio's adored mother and sister and a legion of quirky friends, bosses and would-be lovers.

Foremost among these friends is Papelito, Julio's spiritual adviser, who awakens him to the life of the Orishas -- the spirits. Papelito counsels Julio and tempers his cynicism, prejudice and self-hatred, and he shows the arsonist that he can learn from and correct his mistakes. "Chango wasn't the fire; he was the heat from the fire that can't be extinguished," Papelito tells him. Such characters -- including Julio's troubled friend Trompo Loco, who starts spinning like a top when he gets upset -- are believable and deeply felt.

That depth contrasts with the clatter of the book's characters from outside the barrio, who spout inauthentic cliches. There's a buttoned-down, square liberal who talks fake hip and wants to get Julio to work for the Democratic Party; there's a white guy from the suburbs who assumes that Julio must be a drug dealer; and, not least, there's Helen, who seems a little too accommodating and a little too distant.

The net effect is flawed but readable. Moreover, a plot twist later makes "Chango's Fire" into more than a love story or a journey of discovery: Julio's survival and ability to escape his arsonist past are in doubt. Although the story is stilted at times, I found myself rooting for Julio, who slowly realizes there is no shortcut on the road to honor and righteousness.