What's it really like to be homeless?
According to this acrid report by a 12-year resident of New York City's mean streets, it's sheer hell. Unlike most homeless, the anonymous author, now middle-aged, grew up in a middle-class Italian family. Moreover, he assures us, "I am not a drug addict, alcoholic, or convict.'' Even so, when, in 1979, his equipment-repair business took a downturn and he couldn't pay his rent, he found himself evicted into the harsh frost of a New York winter. What followed was an odyssey of the damned: The author turned to relatives who slammed door after door in his face; he hiked up to the Italian Bronx and was chased away by a neighborhood posse; he sought refuge in a church only to have a priest pour a cauldron of boiling water on his head. All this suffering is described in gritty prose ("My dirty clothes were rotting off my body, and were so stiff they were like cardboard. Pieces would fall off my underwear as I walked. My brain was turning to jelly'') that hammers home the horrors--fear, filth, loneliness, exhaustion, hunger--of life on the streets (and, briefly, in a shelter and a flophouse and on the subways). Yet, for all this detail and the rambling flashbacks of the author's childhood, a hint of obfuscation taints these pages. It's partly composed of the pure melodrama of some of the events (a priest pouring boiling water?) but mostly of the author's refusal or inability to explain his enduring homelessness--though his relatives' responses and a later stint in a mental ward give strong clues. The text concludes on a relatively upbeat note as the author tape-records his memoirs, gets a portion published in Street News and then Newsday, and is contacted by a literary agent, who sells his book.
A photorealist portrait--harrowingly vivid but with little psychological insight--that leaves society's lowest depths still frustratingly unplumbed.