"At some low, what's-next level, 'Sleepers' works like, well, gangbusters," says TIME's Richard Schickel. When Lorenzo Carcaterra published 'Sleepers' last year, he claimed his book about brutal child abuse in a New York reform school in the 1960s and the long delayed revenge four of its victims gain on their tormentors was a true and, indeed, autobiographical tale. His story, however, did not check out to the satisfaction of investigating journalists, who could find no hard evidence to support his claim. The author' s defense was that he changed names and details to protect his pals. In making the film version, writer-director Barry Levinson has stripped away much of the narrative essence, and as a result, perhaps resolved whatever controversy may still cling to Carcaterra's work. We now see clearly that the author's primary source wasn't life but movies. Lots of movies, it turns out. The film starts with the four growing up in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen, a kind of minor 'Angels with Dirty Faces,' only with Robert De Niro playing the Pat O'Brien part. It segues into a prison film when they get sent to reform school in upstate New York where they are brutalized by the guards. When, a decade later, two of the boys kill one of the guards, the movie morphs again, into the legal thriller when another one of the boys, now grown up to be an assistant D.A. assigned to prosecute, decides to throw the case. "It is all legally preposterous," notes Schickel. "But Levinson is a slick craftsman, his actors are insinuatingly real and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus casts a disarmingly believable light on these proceedings."
BOOKS . . . THE POLITICS OF MEMORY:
In her perceptive, engaging, but ultimately frustrating new book, 'The Politics of Memory: Looking for Germany in the New Germany' (Random House; 293 pages; $27.50), Jane Kramer, who writes the "Letter from Europe" column for the New Yorker, addresses the question of how the former West Germans and the former East Germans are adjusting to each other. She finds wariness and disappointment; they are making an edgy acceptance of unity without much enthusiasm. Kramer's approach is not systematic, and the subjects of her six chapters are very specific: a restaurant in a bohemian district of West Berlin, an East German poet who spied on his friends for the secret police, the struggle over what kind of Holocaust memorial should be built in Berlin. But as illuminating as individual passages may be, The 'Politics of Memory' lacks overall coherence, says TIME's James Collins. "In large part this is a result of its origins as separate pieces that Kramer wrote for the New Yorker between 1988 and 1995. She clearly hopes these disparate tales will reinforce one another, but the relationship between them is often not apparent. There is a constant hovering quality to her prose, as if she is unwilling to land in one spot and stake her flag there. This open-endedness can have merit, but here it also leads to slack writing and aggravating indirection. Trying to evoke a peopleĺs spirit requires subtlety, but some more explicitness would not have unduly bruised the delicate effects Kramer does achieve."
BOOKS . . . TEN INDIANS:
Madison Smartt Bell's 'Ten Indians' (Pantheon; 272 pages; $23) catches child psychiatrist Mike Devlin just short of burnout, mortally sick from seeing damaged children. He is no longer surprised, for instance, to notice an eight-year-old boy who has come to him with cigarette burns on his body scissoring the crotches from plastic soldiers. Nothing new, but "Devlin realized with a dreary fatigue," the author writes, "that he would be obliged to discover the reason for this detail." Hoping to dodge his devils, Devlin pursues a second skill. He is a Tae Kwon Do adept, and though he is white, middle aged and middle class, he opens a gym to teach this Korean martial art in Baltimore's black ghetto. This is both inspiration and folly, redoubled because he encourages his 17-year-old daughter, who also knows Tae Kwon Do, to help out. The neighborhood's young black drug dealers are pragmatists, eager to learn the fighting discipline for self-protection when they are sent to prison. Devlin, an idealist trying shakily not to unravel, commits too much of himself. And despite his efforts, gunfire sweeps through the streets. People die. "The working out, told partly from Devlin's viewpoint and partly, in convincing street language, from that of the drug dealers and their women, is spare and cinematic," says TIME's John Skow. "Devlin, far out on a lonely voyage, saves his honor. Saves his daughter too. But it is the neighborhood that wins. Good ending, good novel."