A bleak panorama of slum life in Rio’s Cidade de Deus (the “City of God”) under three decades of gang rule.
The basis for a 2002 Brazilian film, this tale defies summary. The movie, at least, imposes structure, via the main character Rocket’s point of view, as opposed to the novel’s sprawling, free-form litany of unremitting violence amid the blocks and houses of slums. In three sections covering the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Lins follows the exploits of three primary gangsters: Hellraiser, Sparrow and Tiny. A multiethnic horde of minor characters flit in and out of the gangsters’ truncated lives as they plot and execute holdups, whack friends, relatives and rivals, obsessively pursue women, drugs, samba prowess, revenge and loot. Rocket, a bit player here, hangs with the Boys, upwardly mobile City dwellers who are into weed, rock concerts and beach parties, but manage to stay in school and avoid becoming thug protégés. An aspiring photographer, Rocket can’t bring himself to rob: The potential victims are too nice. Hellraiser introduces Pipsqueak to crime when he enlists the punk sociopath to help in a motel heist. When Hellraiser is wasted by Detective Beelzebub, Pipsqueak, now self-dubbed Tiny, and his best friend Sparrow take control of the City’s economic lifeblood, its drug dens. After Tiny hears of a vicious rape/murder, he punishes the culprits Butucatu and Potbelly for infringing his ban on crime against City residents. Gunning for Tiny, Butucatu kills Sparrow. Tiny reigns alone, but not for long—envious of Knockout’s good looks, he rapes the hitherto solid citizen’s fiancée. This triggers full-blown gang war, which divides the City into zones controlled by Knockout’s growing army, and Tiny’s increasingly fractious band of cohorts. Much bloodshed later, the chaos in the City endures—only the perpetrators change. Tiny meets his end at the hands of a novice gangster much like his former self.
Numbing scenes of horrific carnage and brutality make for painful, but somehow compulsory, reading.