Book Review: Sleepers, by Lorenzo Carcaterra. New York: Ballantine, 1995. 404 pp., $23.00 (hardcover). ISBN 0-345-39606-5

Date01 January 2003
Published date01 January 2003
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18ECTz98DdoaRq/input 10.1177/1541204002238366
Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice
Book Review
Sleepers, by Lorenzo Carcaterra. New York: Ballantine, 1995. 404 pp., $23.00 (hardcover). ISBN 0-
DOI: 10.1177/1541204002238366
Sleeper (colloquial): A juvenile sentenced to serve any period longer than 9 months in a
state-managed facility.
An Overview of Sleepers
Sleepers is a true story of four young boys who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. It is a
first-person account of John, Tommy, Michael, and Lorenzo (the author), a group of occasional
delinquents who turn an adolescent scam into a commitment at the Wilkinson Home for Boys.
The plan was simple. Lorenzo would order a hot dog from the street vendor. When the vendor
handed him the hot dog, he would run. The vendor had two choices. He could take chase or take the
loss. If the vendor took the loss, the scam was over. If he chased, the other boys would “feast in his
absence” (p. 149).
Sleepers takes form as the vendor takes chase. As Lorenzo eludes the vendor, John, Tommy,
and Michael take the hot dog cart and perch it on a flight of stairs. When the vendor arrives, the boys
plan to flee as he works to ease the cart back onto level ground. The simple scam became complicated.
John, Tommy, and Michael could not hold the teetering cart, and it fell—nearly killing a 67-year-
old man. In Hell’s Kitchen, although “silence in the face of crime is a virtue and blindness a necessity”
(p. 153), serious crimes against the “people of the neighborhood were not permitted, and, on the rare
occasions when they did occur, the punishments doled out were severe” (p. 28). After a hasty juvenile
court hearing, the boys received an indeterminate sentence at the Wilkinson Home for Boys. John,
Tommy, and Michael were 15; Lorenzo was 12. At Wilkinson’s, the boys would endure punishment
and humiliation above and beyond their sentence. Eleven years later, they would seek revenge.
The Structure of Sleepers
Sleepers is composed of three books. Book 1 has 16 chapters and begins in the summer of 1964
and ends in the summer of 1967. Book 1 is a detailed account of the boys’ family life, life in Hell’s
Kitchen, the role of the Catholic Church, and their occasional delinquent activities. Chapters 14
through 15 of Book 1 detail a prank gone awry, and chapter 16 ends with the boys’ commitment to the
Wilkinson Home for Boys. John, Tommy, and Michael received a sentence of no more than 18 months
and no less than 12 months. Lorenzo, because of his age, was committed to no more than 12 months
and no less than 6 months.
Book 2 has 12 chapters and can best be categorized as the postadjudication experience. It is
devoted solely to life in the Wilkinson Home for Boys and begins in the fall of 1967 and ends in the
summer of 1968. Book 2 vividly describes Wilkinson’s: inmates, guards, institutional life, and the
physical, emotional, and sexual abuse endured at the hands of callous guards. Book 2 ends as Lorenzo
is being released from Wilkinson’s in the summer of 1968.
Book 3 skips forward 11 years and begins in the fall of 1979. Book 3 has 22 chapters and
finishes this tale of loyalty, revenge, and street justice. Hell’s Kitchen has changed considerably by the
1980s. Ethnic cleavages have been transformed into racial cleavages. Crimes against the
Youth Violence and Junenile Justice: An Interdisciplinary Journal (YVJJ), Vol. 1 No. 1, January 2003 102-108
© 2003 Sage Publications

neighborhood people, once controlled and contained, have escalated. Gangs have taken over the
streets, and drugs flow freely. The boys have changed as well. John and Tommy are founding
members of the West Side Boys, a lethal gang in Manhattan. They are professional hit men. Michael is
the newly appointed assistant district attorney of New York City. Lorenzo is working his way up as a
reporter at the New York Daily News.
Book 3 reaches one of several pivotal points when on a cloudy and crisp fall night John and
Tommy enter the Shamrock Pub. An old Hell’s Kitchen bar, it has remained despite the growth of
establishments designed for uptown clientele. It is only by happenstance that they encounter Sean
Nokes, one of the sadistic guards at Wilkinson’s. Eleven years after their release from Wilkinson’s,
John and Tommy execute Nokes as he eats the meat-loaf special—three bullets in the head, one in
each leg, and three in the chest.
The next several chapters of Book 3 recount the criminal trial of John and Tommy for the
murder of Sean Nokes. Michael is given the case when he convinces the district attorney that his

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