Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Lopez captures the gritty urban landscape to perfection and humanizes even his most despicable characters. Gabriel is 14 years old and has run away from home. His mother, Ofelia, searches for him by riding nightly through the Philadelphia neighborhood known as ""the Badlands"" on a bicycle that he gave her as a birthday present, but which she had not previously used because she suspected that the gift had been bought with drug money. Gabriel began working as a decoy at 12, then graduated to lookout, and finally to full-fledged dealer for a violent man named Diablo, who shoots dogs with abandon. Gabriel soon makes the acquaintance of Eddie, a small-time musician who has just left his wife of ten years, and his two sons, for another woman and moved to a part of the Badlands where his mother owns a run-down building. His lover leaves him almost immediately, his wife threatens to keep him from seeing his children, and the truck he borrowed from a mobster in order to move had an electrical problem and burned up on the highway. When the mayor of Philadelphia dies and is laid out in the funeral home of an acquaintance, Eddie and a pal plan to stage a break-in and steal a large ring that they spotted on the corpse's finger during television coverage so that Eddie can pay the mobster back; Gabriel, in debt to Diablo and therefore in hiding, soon becomes involved. The many plots and subplots, centering on love or desperation or both, revolve and intersect at a fast pace. Lopez's real accomplishment here is his rich, layered evocation of a life usually mauled (by the press, on television) with the blunt instruments of sensationalism and crocodile tears.