Much has changed in Brazil since the military seized power in 1964. Less than half the population then was urban; three-fourths is now. Running water, sewers, and electricity are increasingly available, but the speed of urbanization means that slum life is the lot of many town dwellers. Public services continue to be the prerogative of wealthy neighborhoods, and slum districts must struggle to secure their portion.

Robert Gay spent several months in 1986 researching two favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and the outcome is a succinct and readable study of the political process in slums: how votes are employed to extract public services from politicians. In Vila Brasil, a favela in Rio’s industrial zona norte settled in the 1940s, the president of the neighborhood association attempts to trade the inhabitants’ votes for immediate, if minor, improvements in the neighborhood’s social services. In Vigidal, a mountaintop slum next to Leblon in the zona sul settled in the same decade, no such boss exists; the favelados, urged on by the neighborhood association’s collective leadership, vote for the candidates (often from a party slate) who offer the best hope for citywide structural reforms.

Much of the book’s most vivid and (from a teaching standpoint) most useful material is in the pages devoted to Vila Brasil and its boss, for they provide a nearclassic case study of patron-client politics. The author deplores the “politics of favors” (p. 139) that predominate in Vila Brasil while he praises the principled stand of Vigidal’s inhabitants. His conclusion about Vigidal, that it has “reshaped its political space” (p. 61), seems somewhat optimistic. The favela’s political attitudes and its self-sufficiency derive from the inhabitants’ defeat in 1978 of a scheme to clear the slum. As the shared memory of that success fades and other factors intrude (such as the drug trade, pp. 97-98), political behavior may well change. The fluidity and instability of the ruling political class during the transition from military to democratic rule in the late 1980s, furthermore, gave Vigidal an unusual space for independent action.

This book is very much a work of political science. It builds a universal theoretical explanation on a narrow and time-specific base of evidence. Its understanding of the urban past is not deep, and it gives the transitory aspects of politics too much attention. Still, the book’s merits outweigh these drawbacks. This study provides a valuable insight into the conditions of life and political behavior in modern urban Brazil.