Finley McManus lives with two broken men in a broken-down town on a street lined with “row homes as broken and gray as Pop’s teeth,” yet even the local drug dealers can see he has “what the old people call character.” This is a kid who can’t throw a decent punch, is unfailingly polite, and doesn’t talk back to either his elders or school bullies; instead, he operates with a quiet decency, bravery, and willingness to sacrifice that has a rough, realistic kind of morality.

Finley’s Pop has two stumps for legs and “sometimes gets drunk during the day and starts dancing with family skeletons.” Pop tells Finley that “you can always outwork talent,” though Pop ended up “collecting tolls at the bridge where he needs neither talent nor a good work ethic.” Finley’s mother is not around and is one of many subjects he won’t talk about. (“It’s like my mind is a fist and it’s always clenched tight, trying to keep the words in.”)

What Finley does love is basketball (“the only thing around here that gets done right”), where he plays point guard (“a role player, not a star”), and his girlfriend, Erin, who is in fact a star basketball player, good enough to get a college sports scholarship. In a town dominated by the Irish mob and black gangsters, both equally violent, the two teens try to get by with hard work and a low profile, though their safety is mostly ensured through the uneasy protection of Erin’s older brother, Rod, who has a reputation as “the most unpredictable and violent Irishman ever to live in Bellmont.”

Finley, on the other hand, has a quiet, determined kindness and calm, which leads his basketball coach to choose him to help the son of a recently murdered friend transition into the town. Boy21, as the newcomer calls himself, is wealthy, black, and loaded with the phenomenal natural talent for basketball that Finley lacks. The two boys, however, turn out to have an affinity for silence, the cosmos, Harry Potter, and each other’s friendship. The third novel (and second for young adults) by Matthew Quick is an astonishing, exhilarating look at how broken lives are managed, and sometimes remade, even under the bleakest, most violent circumstances.