When the elephants fight, it's the ants that get hurt."" The elephants in this predictable but nonetheless gripping Maas-market melodrama are the Mafia on one side and the Justice Dept. on the other; and caught in between is Maas' not-very-likable hero, an ant named Richie Flynn. Poor N.Y. Irish kid Richie--he had one shining hour a few years back in pro ball before his knee got wrecked, but now he's a salesman for Goldblatt Beer with a crummy apartment, a tetchy wife, a sullen kid, and (his one glory) a topless-dancer mistress. Richie, however, does have a dream: in cahoots with a minor N.Y.C. bureaucrat, he plans to buy a deserted South Bronx synagogue at city auction ($10,000 down) and then reap the windfall benefits when the city leases it back from him for a day-care center (to be arranged by his cohort). But where can Richie get the down payment.? From a loanshark, of course, and Richie borrows from the sharkiest of them all, the ""Last Resort""--fearful, hateful, Mafia-bred Albert (King Kong) Karpstein of Hoboken. This is a mistake, as Richie fully realizes when his day-care deal falls through and he can't pay Karpstein back--Karpstein, who hurts and kills for respect and for fun, who demanded as collateral that he become the beneficiary of Richie's life insurance: ""I'm cashing in that policy. You don't come over here tomorrow with the money, I'm coming in and I'm cutting your fucking balls off."" Terrified, Richie seeks protection from his local Mafia don; and when the Mafia hierarchy thus gets involved with Karpstein's operation, a slimily aristocratic and opportunistic federal prosecutor sees a way to demonstrate an interstate conspiracy--with Richie as well-guarded star witness. But will the dons just stand by and let Richie finger them? Hardly. . . . No surprises in any of this, and Maas has slightly stretched out and slowed down his small-scale tale with excess sex, courtroom verbiage, and Mafioso lore. But, even though Richie will get minimal sympathy from most readers, his world is a masterpiece of gritty verisimilitude: Monmouth Park, topless bars, domestic dronings, the bombed-out Bronx, a prison system that's thoroughly, unabashedly corrupt. And his nemesis, the horrible Karpstein, is a tour de force of monumental, grossly funny awfulness: you'll have nightmares about him coming to knock your door down. Good, mean, dirty, cynical fun.