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Breslin turns his missionary zeal to the plight of New York's poor

He Got Hungry and Forgot his Manners, by Jimmy Breslin. New York: Ticknor & Fields. 275 pp. $17.95. This is Mr. Breslin at his best, a voice for the poor and the forgotten, mercilessly lancing the wealthy and the hard of heart. It's a good story that blisters along, and in some parts it's weepingly funny.

It marks a triumph of a writer who has for many years crammed a righteous anger into his books and daily columns. In the past, most of that anger spilled out and disappeared, simply because it was too intense. But in this book, a sterner, stronger hand is in control, keeping your eye on the subject.

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Breslin's problem with New York City's poverty has been trying to link the vast, complex net of poor people, poverty agencies, bureaucracies, charities, the do-gooders, the churches, and the politicians. He has said this over and over, that the poverty industry depends on the poor and seeks first to keep itself alive. New York - and probably most other American cities - cares little for children, and consumes them, given the chance.

The main character, Fr. Cosgrove, arrives rather innocently as a missionary in New York with his African aide. In no time he is lost in the outer boroughs, wandering the wildest areas of Howard Beach and beyond. In his narrow missionary's view of what is needed to solve New York's social ills, Breslin shows the painfully sad and, at the same time, hysterically funny misperceptions most people have of the plight of the underclass.

And through it all, the story races along, jumping back and forth, chasing itself from Queens to Fifth Avenue at full speed, in cabs, in the subway, in and out of bodegas, opera houses, the co-ops of the wealthy, and the squalid tenements of the lost - tenements where heat is the gas stove, where food is endless Burger Kings, where women pray the welfare computer won't forget them, and where the concept of family is ... well, isn't.

After 10 books, a Pulitzer, and decades of writing a column for the New York Daily News, Breslin has unquestionable authority to put things exactly as they are. His analysis of the social suicide he sees is real, and he demands that you see it, too. It's a matter of perception, and his goal, I think, is that once you see, you'll feel the same anger and the same demand that something be done. The trick here is to make the story so good that you tag along 'til you see things that make you wince.

This may be the kind of commentary needed for the post-Reagan years. There will be other William Buckleys and George Wills, but one can hope their smirks go out of fashion. Breslin, on the other hand, may be coming into his own.

Jeff Danziger is on the Monitor staff.

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