Undisciplined, weakly plotted first novel--about a young drug- runner who wants out--that offers the most visceral portrait of crack-curdled inner-city life since Richard Price's Clockers, and likely the most authentic ever: Rodriguez is a native of the South Bronx, which he also brought to vividly garish life in the collection The Boy Without a Flag. While Price worked a large canvas, covering cop-life as well as crack-life, Rodriguez sticks to the ghetto--and his is Hispanic, not African-American. This narrow focus serves him well as he unfold what's at heart a very simple--and familiar--plotline. His 16-year-old hero, Miguel, delivers crack for a rising druglord named Spider. But Miguel--who doesn't do crack himself--is ready to quit: He's too sensitive and smart to carry on, despite the fast money, the arguments of his arsonist roommate, Firebug, and the threats of Spider. Miguel's resolve is boosted by the urgings of his crackhead friend Amelia, and it's cemented when he falls for a prototypical good girl who can't bear his way of life. When Miguel tries to make his break, he's set up by Spider and takes two bullets--but he survives and, partly thanks to a father-figure Hispanic cop, finds the courage to walk away for good. But this highly moral plot, which could fly as a TV Afternoon Special for teens, is only a rickety scaffold for Rodriguez's real triumph: his stunning depiction--in slang-and-dialect-ridden prose (``I can still see huh, puttin' on huh putona clothes t`go out't some social club...'') that's so freewheeling it sometimes rolls right off the page--of life in Spidertown. Burrowing deep into his characters' complex souls, he makes each rich and sympathetic, even Firebug, who lives for his ``wienie roasts''--and that's some achievement. Despite the slack plotting: a piercing and unforgettable cry from the heart of crack-hell.