In the last few years, Howard has turned from real-life crime sagas (Zebra, Brothers in Blood, Six Against the Rock) to full-blooded potboilers like Dirt Rich (1986) and Quicksilver (1988). This time out, he offers his best to date: a strongly satisfying (and supposedly autobiographical) yarn about a young boy growing up hard on Chicago's mean streets during the 1940's. As the story begins, Richie--12 years old and living with his heroin addict mother Chloe in a shabby Chicago apartment--runs away only to lead a precarious existence on the streets, working as a pinboy in a bowling alley, stealing and selling watches from dimestores--and searching unsuccessfully for his father, Slim, a minor Chicago gangster. There's a brief ray of hope when a kindly boxing instructor takes him under his wing at the local gym, but soon the authorities catch up with Richie, and he's into a series of foster homes, where he is beaten and sexually abused. More stealing follows--then Richie is sent to a jail for juvenile delinquents. Paroled into the not-so-welcoming arms of his maternal grandmother (Chloe has by this time fatally OD'd), Richie spends a year as an outcast in a small Tennessee town before heading back to the Windy City, joining a gang of petty crooks, and almost settling in for a life of increasingly serious crime. But he straightens up in time to finish high school, join the Marines and see action in Korea. Back once again in Chicago, he attends college with dreams of becoming a writer--an ambition that is reinforced only when his former best friend and fellow gang member lands on death row after shooting a cop. Augie March it is not--but, still, this is a frequently compelling old-fashioned novel that favorably compares with the somewhat similar work of the late Earl Thompson.