A clunky debut--about coming of age in East Harlem in 1960. Rodriguez's novel reminds the reader that barrio life 30 years ago was marked by poverty, unemployment, crime, and drug-addiction--all as demoralizing as today if somewhat less violently lethal. RenÃ‰ GÃ³mez, 17, lives on 103rd Street, his early years in Puerto Rico forgotten except for the ""eternally fascinating"" stories told by his widowed mother, Amanda. Unable to find a job and frustrated because (in an example of the novel's rendering of Puerto Rican dialogue) ""My mom sez dat I'm rotten,"" RenÃ‰ attempts a burglary. In the room of merchant marine Fernando Fuentes, RenÃ‰ finds no money but steals a few items of sentimental value, including a comb he gives to his mother. Amanda meets Fernando at a dance hah and, believing him decent, falls in love; Fernando sees the comb and, holding the burglary over RenÃ‰'s head, pressures him into serving as a drug courier. RenÃ‰ also develops a relationship with Silas Turnvil, the shamas (sexton) of the rundown synagogue next door; withdrawn, misanthropic, but erudite Turnvil talks about literature and accepts RenÃ‰'s help tending the synagogue garden. When Fuentes, believing all Jews rich, organizes the burglary and desecration of the synagogue, RenÃ‰ goes along, though he later saves Turnvil's life and is reassured that he should ""Forget it, sonny. We all make mistakes."" To the mix, add a gang, a Bronx social club, a sexy neighbor, and a religious fanatic. Familiar types in an unconvincing story.