Investigative reporter for the Newark Eagle-Examiner Carter Ross avoids catching his editor’s eye, preferring to dredge up his own stories without interference. But the day after two young boys perish is a tragic house fire, Ross is tapped to provide the requisite cautionary space heater story a senior editor demands as a public service. Given the added burden of partnering with intern Lauren McMillan (aka “Sweet Thang” in politically incorrect office parlance), Ross escorts the talkative young reporter to the damaged house.
Tiptoeing through the debris, the dead boy’s distraught mother, Akilah Harris, holds a knife to Sweet Thang’s throat, fearing the reporters intend harm. Thus begins a wild ride in which the urbane Carter is sidelined by Lauren, who wins over both Akilah and her suspicious elderly mother living in the projects. While Akilah claims she was working two jobs to pay the mortgage on her house and was not home to save her boys, her story is peppered with half-truths and inconsistencies, though Harris really is in serious danger that hasn’t caught up with her yet.
Yet another story grabs the headlines, news of a kidnapped city councilman. Hoping for that diversion, Carter is distraught when his boss orders him instead to recover jewelry stolen from the naïve McMillan - she has friends in high places at the newspaper - after the intern extends her overnight hospitality to the light-fingered Harris. In a bizarre twist, the two stories merge and a more nefarious plot is revealed: “Lies are like cockroaches. Where there’s one, there’s bound to be others.”
In all, this is a semi-serious romp through colorful Newark neighborhoods filled with eccentric characters, the requisite bad guys, and Sweet Thang’s incessant stream-of-consciousness babbling (ad nauseum, I might add). Not a particularly interesting scenario, except for Parks’s kinky humor and natural ebullience that lift his novel to another level. Aggravating as it is to endure Lauren’s verbal diarrhea, Parks has a way with people and places that instills a life of its own and turns menace into farce. Random events bring Carter and his intern face to face with some bad actors, but ironically, it is the bubble-headed Sweet Thang who stumbles into a world of criminal enterprise, real estate fraud, the bribery of public officials and murder.
Certainly there are flaws. Parks tends to overwrite stereotypical female characters - the well-endowed yet intellectually frivolous Sweet Thang and a drop-dead gorgeous editor who stalks Carter for his genetic contribution to fulfilling her biological imperative for motherhood. (These well-endowed females seem relevant only in Carter’s personal relationships; all others are physically unexceptional.) The “bad actors” are equally stereotypical, as are the eccentric folks who people the Newark neighborhoods. In spite of all this, Parks writes with an undeniable chutzpah that allows readers to experience this novel with more humor and tolerance than dismissal. Too few writers have this unique ability, so who can gainsay such a charming pied piper? Certainly not me.