In seven stories that chronicle growing up Puerto Rican in the South Bronx--surrounded by violence, promiscuous sex, and casual drug use--Rodriguez captures the quick, jagged rhythms of street life. In the title piece, the narrator, who wants to be a writer, becomes enamored of his father's stories about American imperialism and refuses to salute the flag. After a big brouhaha, the authorities finally bring the father, intimidated and ready for compromise, into the situation, and the boy, diminished but aware of the world's complexity, capitulates. ``No More War Games'' introduces a 12-year-old girl, Nilsa, who--in a few pages--grows up fast, moving from ``war games'' (bottles and rocks thrown with a vengeance) to an exploration of her emerging sexuality. ``Babies'' is a gritty underbelly-of-life fiction about a female narrator, a 16-year-old junkie, who, denying the strength of her habit, watches one friend give away a baby before getting pregnant herself and choosing an abortion. Likewise, in ``Elba,'' Rodriguez dramatizes the way a young mother tries to raise her baby and make a life with the father, but then, in despair, leaves the baby so that she can have a night out. In ``The Lotto,'' one of the most powerful stories here, Dahlia loses her innocence amid dreams of the Lotto but tests negative for pregnancy, whereupon pregnant Elba (who reappears) breaks off the friendship. ``Birthday Boy'' shows a kid's descent into petty crime and indifference after a childhood of betrayal, desertion, and abuse. ``Short Stop,'' about Marty the motorman, is more buoyant than the others, mostly because Marty, accosted on all sides by crazies, goes about his business and survives. Occasionally derivative in its use of dialect, but a debut that's almost always striking in its bleakness, its empathy, and its convincing detail. A couple of these pieces previously appeared in Story.