In this surprisingly slick debut, ex-con and former junkie Morgan effectively exploits his experience for a sprawling, realist fiction that's part crime novel and part social commentary on being down and out in America. And despite his undisguised delight in the sordid and depraved, his winning sense of humor and obvious street-smarts make for an entertaining, at times riveting, read. What begins as a guided tour through San Francisco's Tenderloin--with much tough talk about druggies, whores, pimps, perverts, and thieves--ends as a heroic portrait of a man with a conscience in an overwhelmingly unconscionable world. Far from perfect, Joe Speaker uses his gig as a strip-joint barker to cover for dealing drugs. Since most of his profits go up his arm, Joe supplements his income with an occasional heist, or by pimping his busty Tex-Mex squeeze, known on the runway as ""Kitty Litter."" When Joe's fellow hophead and homeboy, Rooski, bungles a robbery, killing a Chinese pharmacist in the process, Joe knows that, as partners in the crime, they're equally guilty of murder. Before Rooski spills his strung-out guts to the cops, Joe sets him up for some street justice. Burdened by guilt for his buddy's death, Joe begins his descent into hell. Events land him in the federal pen, with a number of people on his butt. At one end of the spectrum is Baby Jewels, 400 pounds of incarnate evil, a pimp and porn king with a penchant for ""dusting"" his used-up girls; he's also blackmailing a judge, but only Joe knows where the incriminating evidence is. With his psycho henchmen and his corrupt allies inside the system, the Fat Man comes close to icing Joe, and leaves lots of decapitated corpses in his wake, but Joe has a few guardian angels in and out of the big house: a troubled but honest ""supercop"" with some dark secrets of his own; a lifer and big shot in the Aryan Brotherhood; and the elderly con in charge of prison photography who, in Morgan's nonaccidental universe, turns out to be Joe's father. Panoramic in its view of sleaze, Morgan's gritty novel depends on numerous secondary characters--each perfectly etched in grime--and a plot that pulls together like a 19th-century novel, or a well-made movie, which this could easily become.