FIRST LINE: "With all the vacant lots in Newark, New Jersey - and there were thousands of them - the Director could afford to be picky."
Carter Ross is an investigative reporter for the Newark Eagle-Examiner in New Jersey, so when four seemingly unrelated individuals wind up shot, execution-style in a vacant lot, Carter is off to investigate the case.
In an attempt to calm the neighborhood, the police pose a theory on the shootings, saying they were retaliation for a bar heist. Carter's boss charges him with getting the bar heist story for the paper, but Carter is suspicious and begins to investigate other avenues with the help of Tina Thompson, the Eagle-Examiner city editor and Tommy Hernandez, an intern with the paper.
Carter quickly finds himself waist-deep in more trouble than he ever anticipated, and he's counting on a prostitute and the 1987 Cleveland Browns line-up to help bail him out.
FACES OF THE GONE is Brad Parks' debut novel and, boy, did he ever knock my socks off. The plot of FACES OF THE GONE is intricate and well-developed. Parks' own background as a journalist may have helped him to keep the plot tight and moving. He does not waste words. What he does do amazingly well is depict humanity. As I've spoken with people about this book, I've regularly mentioned how often I was in awe of the images he created of this urban neighborhood, so accustomed to death:
"I had interviewed kids who bragged about how big their shrines would be when they got killed. They talked about it with a nonchalance that was chilling."
"Tee has a small storefront on Clinton Avenue. He and I became acquainted a few years back when I did a story about RIP T-shirts, which happen to be Tee's speciality. RIPs had become a disturbingly prevalent urban fashion trend: anytime some too-young kid got killed, his boys rushed to have a T-shirt made in his memory. Every RIP T-shirt was different, but they followed the a basic formula, featuring the deceased's photo, the dates of birth and death, and the words REST IN PEACE. The people who wore them essentially became walking tombstones."
"If Wanda had known the choices she was making would have left her dead before her thirtieth birthday, would she have chosen differently? Maybe. Except, of course, Wanda probably never thought about her thirtieth birthday. It's a common problem among the impoverished, the lack of future focus. People are so worried about surviving today they don't have the luxury of thinking about tomorrow."And before you think, "wow, I'm not sure if I can read this; it sounds depressing," let me add the next layer to Parks' plot - humor. Despite the tragedy happening all around, Carter Ross manages to be hilarious without undermining the seriousness of the plot, as are some of the situations Carter finds himself in. The situations aren't absurd, they're funny. Much of it comes from Carter's perceptions and MIS-perceptions of the world around him:
"It's like lion prides. For years, researchers - sorry, male researchers - believed the boy lions duked it out for the right to breed with the girl lions, who were passive spectators in the whole thing. The record only got set straight when some female researchers came along and took a more careful look at the social dynamics in the pride that preceded the fight. It turns out much of the time the lionesses are really calling the shots, selecting the most fit breeding partner. The fights the boy lions have are merely a noisy confirmation of what the girl lions have already decided among themselves."The final element of the plot that truly makes it great is the fact that it turns the old cliché of the "cops don't know what they're doing" on its head and shakes the coins out of its pockets. This is not a predictable plot by any stretch of the imagination.
Parks takes this complex plot, peppered with humor and mixes in his cast of rich, eccentric characters. Tommy, the gay Cuban intern; Tina, the biological clock-watching city editor; Red, the homeless Casanova; Tynesha, the exotic dancer/prostitute. And of course, the protagonist and narrator, investigative reporter Carter Ross:
"The things that allow me to blend into the tasteful décor at any of New Jersey's better suburban shopping malls - my side-parted hair, my preference for button-down-collared shirts and pressed slacks, my awkwardly upright carriage, my precise diction and bland anywhere-in-America accent - made me a circus freak in the hood. Most people I pass on the street are polite enough to merely stare. A few openly point. People are constantly asking me if I'm lost."
Carter is smart and funny and principled and flawed. He doesn't always make the best choices and he isn't always right. Instead, he's hysterically human.
I dare you not to fall in love with these characters. As eccentric as they are, I could completely imagine meeting every single last one of them; they come alive on the page and that makes the underlying themes of the book so much more powerful.
This is a debut that should NOT be missed! You will be seeing this title on my favorites list for 2009. Brad Parks has undoubtedly got "The Stuff"!
FACES OF THE GONE is available starting today from St. Martin's Minotaur (ISBN: 978-0-312-57477-2).