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'Locas' Takes A Hard Look At An Even Harder Life.

By Margaret Regan

Locas, by Yxta Maya Murray (Grove Press). Hardcover, $22.

DOWN ON THE mean streets of Los Angeles' Echo Park, a girl doesn't have too many options.

She can become a "sheep," a sex girl who tarts herself up in spike heels and tight skirts to snare one of the gangbanging vatos. If she's lucky enough to catch a man, the sheep cooks and cleans for him, cheers him on in perilous rumblas in the park, "sexes him" whenever he wants and doesn't complain if he gets drunk and bats her around. In exchange, he'll set her up in a roach-infested apartment, and once in a while give her some money for a new dress.

If all goes right, the sheep will soon graduate into a mamacita, get a nice government check, and while away her day peacefully on the park bench with the other mamas, while the little ones slumber in their strollers. More than likely the vato daddy will take off once she gets fat, but at least she's got the baby. She's someone.

The horrifying new book, Locas, a first novel by Yxta Maya Murray, gives razor-sharp life to la vida in a down-and-out Los Angeles barrio in the 1980s and '90s. Echo Park is under the rule of violent gangs who are rapidly pushing up the body count as they graduate from gun-dealing to high stakes crack-pushing. Murray writes with analytical precision about the intricate political world of the gangs, the way the guy who's the jefe one day almost imperceptibly slips, how a discontented right-hand man slyly moves into the breach to start up his own pack of locos. But the book's greatest achievement is its chilling portrait of two gang girls, locas who negotiate their way through their world with a calculation worthy of Machiavelli.

The story is told in the first person, the chapters alternating between the voices of Cecilia and Lucía. Both teenagers get respect all around the Park through their alliance with Manny, cold-blooded jefe of the Lobos. Cecilia is his adoring little sister. Shutting out the wails and prayers of her mother, she does anything Manny asks, including pushing crack to the little sixth graders over at Garfield Junior High. Still, she's made careful plans to get out of the gang life, though she keeps them to herself. She's gonna take her pick of Manny's vatos, sex him good so he thinks she loves him and catch herself a baby. Her idea of heaven is to kick it with the other mamacitas in the park and sink into soft, blissful motherhood.

Tough, smart and mean to the bone, Lucía has no intention of imitating stupid little Cecilia. True, at 15, she became Manny's sheep, but she's watched him carefully, insinuated herself gradually into his drug business. She intends to make her grab for power when the time is ripe. She has no time either for sheep or mamacitas. After all, her own mother, once brave enough to carry baby Lucía over the Rio Grande from Mexico, turned into the worst of both female types. Her husband, humiliated by his failure in America, beats her with savage regularity and finally abandons her. As Lucía tells it:

He slammed down on my mami like she was a punching bag and he's Roberto Duran, giving her an uppercut so she's bleeding from the mouth, and he wouldn't stop for Díos or the devil. She got broke up so that she can't even open her eyes and I can't breathe there in the corner, where I stayed quiet and learned my lesson. Even then I was thinking, Mami, you're just a loser. Me, I ain't never gonna be like that. Nope, she intends to become a jefa in her own right, with her own car, her own income from drug deals and street knockdowns, and a whole tribe of little girl cholitas to do her bidding. So she hies herself over to the birth control clinic, "jumps in" some tough chicas into her own Fire Girls and bides her time, waiting for Manny to weaken.

Murray is a wunderkind who's published both fiction and journalism and, at age 28, is a professor at Los Angeles' Loyola Law School. The daughter of a Spanish teacher in the Los Angeles public school system, she writes as though she's lived the loca life forever. It's a mystery how her apparent middle-class upbringing allowed her such understanding of a place where, as Lucía says, college is a dream, like something on television. Her tough-talking dialogue, full of a grungy urban poetry accented by street Spanish, seems to race pell-mell out of her characters' mouths, urgent and utterly alive.

Her Los Angeles comes alive in its details: the wasted old white guys minding the gun stores, hoping to knock off some young Mexican gangbangers. The cleaning ladies, sad viejitas, riding the bus to work, mourning their dead gangster sons in church. The anxious white couple on Rodeo Drive tensing up at the sight of cholitas on a field trip. But for all its fine writing, Murray's relentless, tragic book is not easy to read. Its portrait of a dangerous, amoral universe reads like a dispatch from the front, a killing field where the fireball of drugs, violence and poverty incinerates everyone in its path.

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