Hard-hitting inner-city saga; Forsaking All Others, by Jimmy Breslin. New York: Simon & Schuster. 431 pp. $16. 95.
''Maximo knew that he actually was standing at the intersection of different worlds, his feet slipping each time he tried to turn about. He had informed himself grandly that he was challenging established order on behalf of the populace. . . . And for daring to feel that he had any special rights left in the world to which he had been born, on the streets on which he had grown, he had received a smack in the face.''
Maximo Escabar, the tragic hero of Jimmy Breslin's captivating new novel, has thrown off the shackles of the Puerto Rican ghetto of New York's South Bronx and sought out education (Harvard Law School, no less) and a life of service to his people. But his freedom is short-lived. He can't rid himself of his childhood friend, Teenager, a charismatic drug-dealing street bully who is sought by the police and ends up on the Mafia ''hit list'' as the result of a gangland war. And to make matters worse, Maximo gets entrapped in a doomed-from-the-start illicit love affair with the daughter of an Italian mob chieftain.
To no one's surprise, Maximo ends up in the gutter -- back where he began.
''Forsaking All Others'' is a novel of frustration and despair. Its characters, save Maximo, are earthy, ignorant, and shallow. That they come to no good won't bother most readers. Breslin's book is sprinkled heavily with sex allusions and abusive language. There are explicit descriptions of sadistic violence. Its message smacks of irreverence toward religion and authority.
Despite all this, the Breslin novel is a good one -- perhaps a great one. It is a Hispanic version of ''Romeo and Juliet,'' an updated West Side Story, comparable to the best episodes of TV's ''Hill Street Blues.'' It's almost certain to end up in the hands of a skillful Hollywood screenwriter.
Jimmy Breslin is a New Yorker's New Yorker. He's brash, arrogant, often irreverent. Ironically, his publishers believe that his ''bad habits'' are his most promotable plus.
But don't let that fool you. In this novel, Breslin has proved himself a sensitive craftsman, a careful chronicler of at least one segment of society. His account of the drug-infested inner city of the ''second America'' is dramatic, penetrating, and authoritative. This dark side of the American dream, he observes, is chronicled ''in unemployment figures, aid-to-dependent-children payments, and penitentiary records.''
Whether it is meant to be or not, ''Forsaking All Others'' is an indictment of a society of haves who have made painfully slow progress in alleviating the plight of the hapless have-nots. Americans of Puerto Rican ancestry protested loudly at their protrayal in the recent film ''Fort Apache, the Bronx.'' Breslin hits them even harder -- but with infinitely more compassion and insight.
Nobody ever accused Jimmy Breslin of being a knighted crusader. But in ''Forsaking All Others'' he may have become just that. Despite its shortcomings, I was enthralled with this novel. It's safe to say that others will be similarly captivated.