A first collection by an English/journalism professor (CUNY), himself an ex-gang member raised in the South Bronx, looks at teenagers in the present-day 'hood. In 15 stories about life in and out of the Lower Depths--b-boys, gangsta tappers, junkies, ex-cons, graffiti artists, and gang-bangers--Rondinone gets off to a most unpromising start with ""Something for Sucio,"" an excruciatingly unfunny tale of Bronx gang members planning a party for the victim of a hit, and ""The Nobody,"" the story of a female ""tagger"" (graffiti artist) in South Central L.A. But when the author shifts out of the first-person and escapes the jargon-laden tone of these two efforts, things (briefly) pick up: ""Cleopatra"" and ""Faux Pas"" take a deeper, more mature attitude toward the violence they contemplate, achieving moments of real feeling. A series of interlocking stories about the rise and fall of Chilly P., a rap star, show a mordant wit and a greater command of dramatic monologue than the book's opening would have suggested. But it's downhill again from there, as Rondinone descends into the self-intoxicated slang-slinging of the title piece. Too many of the tales here seem to be just opportunities taken (and indulged in) by Rondinone to show that he's listening to his students' argot, dripping with postmodern irony of the cheapest sort. Still, ""Cleopatra,"" with its low-key portrait of a former gang member returning from prison to his old block, and ""Faux Pas,"" a similarly-themed effort told from the point of view of a younger friend of an ex-con, are genuinely moving and suggest that Rondinone can do better. Depending on which voice is going to emerge in later work, either a harbinger of good things to come or a portent of less.