Ramon Santiago, 14, is living alone with the cockroaches, as his father is in Attica (for hitting a cop during a Puerto Rican demonstration) and his mother in the hospital, disoriented and homsesick for Puerto Rico. Desirous of living up to his father's demands for macho, Ramon is trying to get in with a tough gang, whose members would just as soon knife him--and do, in a bloody four-to-one confrontation later in the novel. Ramon rarely attends school, which has little to offer; yet on the suggestion of a former teacher who recognized some poetic talent, he carries a notebook to record his thoughts. Ramon's life turns around when the gang sends him to rob a crippled old man, Arnold Glasser, who is actually living on welfare though his carpeted, book-filled apartment seems luxurious to Ramon. Glasser is a painter who enjoyed some brief prominence in the 30s, still paints, but has soured on life. The two become prickly friends and Ramon, on his own insistence, begins hawking Glasser's paintings on the street. This enterprise leads him to a gallery owner who knew Glasser and agrees to take some of his paintings; and in a tense exchange at the gallery, Ramon gives up his precious knife to Glasser in return for Glasser's exposing his work to the world. The situation is sentimental and the developments improbable, but there is vitality in the individual scenes, along with grit, suspense, warmth, and wry humor.