SONGS FROM THE ALLEY by Kathleen Hirsch (Ticknor & Fields: $22.95; 420 pp.)

Most of us quite understandably maintain a measure of distance when we pass homeless people on the street, either ignoring them or avoiding eye contact while handing over some change, lest we find ourselves momentarily connected in some intimate and frightening way to their fate. This book initially elicits a similarly stand-offish reaction, for journalist Kathleen Hirsch listens so intently to the "songs" of Boston's street people that their cadences resound throughout these pages; the two homeless women on whom she focuses thus seem more like fictional characters than journalistic subjects profiled from afar. "Songs from the Alley" is ultimately compelling, though, for its novelistic intensity and its social observations, which defy both liberal and conservative stereotypes. While contending, for example, that more social services will not necessarily mitigate homelessness, Hirsch traces "some of our most cherished values--achievement, autonomy, the self-absorbed pursuit of status and wealth"--to the violence that "shatters in children the psychological coherence essential to self-esteem and full, productive lives."

Hirsch's arguments are consistently persuasive, but her most impressive accomplishment lies in reducing that measure of distance we feel when passing the homeless in the street. Movingly recounting the childhoods of her two protagonists, when they too shared typically American hopes and dreams, Hirsch suggests that the homeless are us. Hirsch first realizes this shortly after isolating herself from upper-middle-class friends. Losing orientation to her own world, she would experience "brief and desolate epiphanies in the dark among deserted city streets; I saw what it was to be anonymous, unconnected, and unable to escape from the feelings of vulnerability and hopelessness this engendered. Stripped of life's sustaining illusions, I saw how easily any one of us can become lost in America."

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