After attending the funeral of real estate grandee Prudential Bowen, three semi-mourners are banking golf balls against the vacant stores of downtown Kansas City. It’s 1983, and the soulless city core is the by-product of Bowen’s cynical vision of suburban progress. In the stark scene sits a harsher implication: If, as the town’s motto declares, Kansas City is the heart of America, and the heart of Kansas City is gutted. . .the logic leads to a nasty place.
Native son Whitney Terrell is hacking out a nice literary fiefdom in Kansas City. His 2001 debut, The Huntsman, delved into town politics and the peculiar brand of Midwest racism, with pleasing dips into gothic. With his second novel, The King of Kings County, you can feel Terrell’s expanded confidence and almost hear him cracking his knuckles, preparing to tell a great big story.
In 1954, Alton Acheson — part hustler, part professional aspirer — has a thunderbolt of an idea, inspired by Eisenhower’s plans for two interstate highways that will slice through Kansas City. Alton decides to buy up the outer farmland that will sextuple in value after the roads go in. First, he needs backing from Prudential Bowen, a Mr. Burns-like business creature who owns half the city. But Bowen has his own nefarious scheme: He has Alton offer cheap mortgages to black home buyers on the city’s east side. His bet? Old-fashioned racism will propel whites right into Bowen’s developments in the Kings County suburbs — and business will follow. Within decades, Alton’s legacy includes a segregated metropolis and that blighted downtown. Woven through the mess is a statement on prejudice and greed, as well as the most American of urges: leaving one’s mark. ”I imagined something, I spent my life on it — and now there it is,” says Alton. ”It might not be perfect. You might even say that it’s ugly, but what you can’t say is that it does not exist.” The line courts both admiration and disgust, as Alton himself does.
King is the tale of a town (Kansas Citians may call it a roman à clef, it gets so specific in tone and topography). But it’s also a coming-of-age story, as told over five decades by Alton’s abashed, admiring, and resentful son, Jack. Terrell will be compared to other Missouri writers, particularly Daniel Woodrell, with his dead-on dialogue and class clashes. But when it comes to Jack’s pubescence, the prose is pure, generous, hilarious John Irving. Jack ambivalently courts Bowen’s tomboy granddaughter, Geanie, while trying to survive misfithood. Scenes of his forced participation in his elite school’s football games are downright poignant, if you can just stop laughing.
The only thing to be said against King is that there should be more of it: Terrell could bite harder when it comes to the city dwellers who flee to suburbia, and more pages could be devoted to Elmore Haywood, Alton’s black partner, who lures his friends into Alton’s devilish mortgages and winds up golfing in that ominous downtown. Other characters flit in and out enticingly: Jack’s forgiving, faithful mother; mobsters who smile like malevolent eels; even Kansas City’s massive brick mansions, resonating ”the weird, magnificent emptiness of the continent’s middle, which no one ever expressly comes to see.” Terrell’s mythic yet utterly sensible novel offers at least a stunning glimpse.