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Publication: The Chicago Tribune
Author: Mark Luce
Date: August 19, 2001

Near the middle of Whitney Terrell's ambitious, potent debut, "The Huntsman," Clarissa Sayers tells her boyfriend, Booker Short, "Nothing frightens people around here more than someone who isn't mediocre." She's talking about Kansas City, and if she's right (trust me, she is), the blase cowtown on the banks of the Missouri River will be downright terrified by the stellar literary gifts of Terrell.

In a literary landscape dotted with thin, average books written with thin, average prose, Terrell has done the unthinkable: He has written a determined and bold, serious novel. With the ghosts of Faulkner, Conrad and Melville lurking in his head, Terrell tackles race and history with the sheer force, mysterious undercurrents and filth of the muddy river that serves as the book's controlling metaphor. When the body of Clarissa, a young, beautiful and petulant daughter of a prominent white judge, Thornton Sayers, gets snagged by a fisherman's line, everyone in town--newspapers, police, TV and especially the well-to-do whites--points a finger at Booker, Clarissa's black boyfriend.

Leading the charge is Sayers, a no-nonsense federal judge who wears a public face of integration but carries a virulent, raw, private racism. The judge understands the levers and pulleys of power and influence, and he exploits them with chilling precision, always careful to cover his tracks and trade on his stellar reputation. And he pushes the Kansas City police hard to find Booker and charge him with the murder of his precious daughter.

"The Huntsman," though, isn't just a thriller, whodunit or detective novel; it's an exercise in literary prowess laced with long patches of history, simmering tensions and complex questions of betrayal and trust between and among races, classes and families. It's a novel about the secrets harbored behind the well-manicured lawns and massive homes of wealthy Kansas City and the gossipy wickedness of its citizens. Above all, it's about a city still bifurcated by race, nearly 150 years after the horrors of Bleeding Kansas.

What's so impressive about Terrell's work is not how he nails the personality, quirks and whispers of the town--black and white--but that he does it with such assuredness and style. While a few places in the novel lag and seem forced, the richness of the characterization and the confident control of language sizzle with foreboding, loneliness and a seething internal anger that, when unleashed, provoke horrifying, explosive actions.

Paramount to all this working well is Booker Short, abandoned by his mother at his grandparents' farm in Oklahoma. His proud grandfather, Isaac Bentham, believes in the efficacy of hard work and hasn't trusted white folks since serving under a white commander in an all-black unit in World War II. Booker, equally repulsed and fascinated by Isaac's obsession with history, finds himself unwittingly repudiating his grandfather's ethic, and one small decision--and betrayal by a white friend--lands Booker in prison.

Out on parole, Booker hops a train to Kansas City to search out Mercury Chapman, Isaac's WWII commander. Booker knows that during the Battle of the Bulge, Isaac saved Mercury's life. Isaac's grudge, involving a massive injustice before the battle, then becomes Booker's. Booker feels Mercury owes him, tells him such, and Mercury, guilt-laden, secures Booker a job at a private hunting club outside the city limits.

There Booker meets Clarissa, a turbulent, motherless child of privilege, and they begin an affair. Their appearance at high-brow, overwhelmingly white social events rocks highbrow Kansas City, with Booker unsure if Clarissa parades him around to get back at her father, as a shock technique, or if she's just a frightened girl with a large secret. One night, after a showdown with Judge Sayers, Clarissa disappears. She's found dead in the river a few days later. Of course, Booker, the last person she supposedly was with, becomes the prime suspect. He runs, but not far.

The mystery aspects of the chase and the question of Booker's guilt tend to dominate the surface of the book, but what's bubbling below provides the gravity. Booker possesses the similar coiled alienation of Joe Christmas from Faulkner's "Light in August." There's his unfocused resentment, the unshakable sense that the world owes him something and the penchant for being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong color of skin.

"There was no other explanation, but Booker felt something curdle in the air. It was the first time he'd ever felt it, the sudden, metallic sourness of violence, and he could feel it gathering, connected to the pleading of the beaten man. . . .

"He would recoil long afterward from the memory of the pouchy feeling of the man's face, like decayed fruit. But at the time he felt relief: he had done what was expected, and that nameless thing implied within the violence--that thing which would cause a man to soil himself--had not yet occurred to him."

That Faulkneresque vibe dominates the best sections of the novel, capturing the spark of violence, the inescapability of the past, the blindness of grudges and fickleness of memory. Terrell twirls these themes marvelously, mixing honed detail, lush physical descriptions, carved sentences and a poised tone rarely found in first-time novelists. Some of the smaller characters--a naive young reporter, a tough-broad detective and a powerful newspaper publisher--are almost goofily stock, but the strength of the writing and, more importantly, the ideas more than make up for the occasional dead spots.

Even though they are worlds apart, "The Huntsman" has much in common with Zadie Smith's heralded 2000 debut, "White Teeth." Both books give a complex, multilayered account of a metropolitan area, focus heavily on the interracial aspects of WWII and contain wicked good prose. Terrell may not have the light-hearted flair of Smith, but Smith doesn't have the twisting heaviness of Terrell.

Of course, it's far too early to start making comparisons to the masters that serve as Terrell's influences, but it is not too soon to recognize the author's lyricism, rigor and fearlessness.

Terrell, like Smith, Colson Whitehead and Steve Yarbrough, writes about race with a disarming combination of cool frankness and earnest, non-patronizing respect. Those characteristics will garner "The Huntsman" public praise from various corners of Kansas City, but they certainly will also engender private screeds against Terrell for portraying the city and certain of its citizens in such a negative light. Mediocre writers can't generate that kind of response. Excellent writers can.