[The literary qualities of "Down These Mean Streets"] are primitive. Yet it has an undeniable power that I think comes from the fact that it is a report from the guts and heart of a submerged population group, itself submerged in the guts and hearts of our cities. It claims our attention and emotional response because of the honesty and pain of a life led in outlaw, fringe status, where the dream is always to escape.
There is, in reports such as this, a certain lack of suspense. The reader knows from the start that the survivor who wrote the book is one of those who got away. There remains the question of how the escape was worked. And there is the fascination of being told of it in a special language created in conflict….
What I, for one, did not know until I read Piri Thomas's tough, lyrical autobiography was the pervasiveness of the Hispanic cultural and social legacy, particularly that phenomenon known as machismo, which can be roughly translated as a kind of insistent maleness.
In Piri Thomas's gutter world, machismo is even more roughly translated as "heart." It can lead a boy to a sense of his own worth—or to drugs and jail. "Down These Mean Streets" is the story of Piri Thomas and his "heart." But, more important, it is the odyssey of one member of a submerged population group whose claim on our attention is immediate and overdue. (p. 1)
(The entire section is 479 words.)