Truth be known, my favorite fiction is set in the urban section
of mid-sized cities. Wallace Stroby’s stories of north and
central Jersey and David Levien’s novels that take place in
Indianapolis are what I reach for more often than not. But now I
have just added FACES OF THE GONE, Brad Parks’s debut, to
that expanding list.
FACES OF THE GONE is set in Newark, New Jersey, one of
America’s more interesting, if not picturesque, cities.
Parks, who describes himself as “an escaped
journalist,” was a sportswriter and news feature writer for
the Newark Star-Ledger, and his
“warts-and-all” descriptions of the city are right on
the mark, down to the transitions that Newark goes through on its
daily journey into night. Indeed, the impetus behind the novel ---
a quadruple, execution-style murder in a vacant lot --- is based on
a real-world occurrence that Parks himself investigated. And Carter
Ross, the investigative reporter who narrates most of the book, may
well be Parks’s alter ego.
Driven by compassion for the victims, Ross begins a steadfast
investigation into the murders of four people who seemingly had
nothing in common other than their brutal ending. The police are
quick to wrap up the murders as rough justice for a prior robbery
of a local tavern, with the murder victims in the role as the
unfortunate and unwise robbers. Ross is not so sure. What he finds
is that the victims, all from different parts of the city, had been
low-level drug dealers or, in the parlance, “hustlers,”
selling just enough to eke out a primitive lifestyle but little
else. Ross goes far on a combination of instinct, an arrogant
self-assurance (which is part bluff), and, yes, some actual
sincerity that gains him access to parts of the city that a white,
buttoned-down male would not otherwise have.
The result is an explosive article in which Ross unwittingly
exposes a drug king known as “The Director,” whose
heroin is legendary for its purity. The murders of the four
hustlers were intended as a warning for those in the know on the
streets of Newark, but Ross’s article now threatens to expose
his entire operation. This puts him in mortal danger from which he
has almost no hope of escaping, forcing him to rely on the
assistance of some unlikely --- and colorful --- allies. The result
is a cat-and-mouse pursuit that carries on practically to the
conclusion of FACES OF THE GONE, a book that will keep you on the
edge of your seat from beginning to end.
Parks is a hoot, combining equal parts humor and action with
strong characterization on all levels, particularly with respect to
his street-level characters, whose despair and poor choices ring
all too true. FACES OF THE GONE is the first of a projected series
set in Newark, and those who like their stories gritty but cut with
humor will cheer this one and clamor for more.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 21, 2011