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Publication: The Kansas City Star
Author: John Mark Eberhart
Date: August 12, 2001

True colors
The Huntsman combines fine storytelling with quest for racial harmony

Whitney Terrell has written a novel set in the Kansas City no one likes to discuss.

The Huntsman fictionalizes many elements but gets KC's racial layering right. Like many American metropolises, this one has an ample measure of monochromatic streets. The various races do share the city, but be honest: How frequently, outside work or concerts or sporting events or other public venues, do you really spend time in highly diverse groups?

If "often" is your honest answer, good for you. For the rest of us, here is a provocative debut novel by a native Kansas Citian, a book that does so many things right that it's almost churlish to point out its few wrongs.

The Huntsman has a message, but fiction's first job is the act of invention. And this is a vivid novel, filled with prose that rides a scenic road between economy and expanse. Even when writing a peripheral character such as Clyde Wilkins, a black man estranged, like so many people here, from the opposite race, Terrell lavishes upon his world the care of a craftsman:

"He was still lingering at the screen door when his wife called him in to the dinner for which she'd set two places, thinking he'd invite Mercury. She'd been born in Oakland, and even after a dozen years, the baroque protocols of her husband's city ... seemed to her befitting more an equatorial republic than a city on the edge of the Great Plains."

"Mercury" is Mercury Chapman, an old-money Kansas Citian who fought in World War II, built a business and rolled with his city's socioeconomic changes. Chapman isn't the most enlightened man, but he knows irony when he sees it: In the bad old days of Jim Crow, he had more contact with blacks, if only because his rich family employed their poor ones as domestics.

"That had been the old city," Terrell writes. "It was gone now, the races having separated against all plan or reason after the laws that kept them apart were abolished, the customs and habits that had intertwined families for generations suddenly appearing unseemly to both sides, embarrassing. It was an unspeakable rift. No one would argue that the change had not been just, necessary, and yet it was also true that when Troost had been the legal line of segregation, Mercury had crossed it often and with pleasure - there being five or six houses open to him for a meal and, later, clubs he would attend - but now, save for funerals, he and others like him did not return."

Chapman soon finds both friend and foil in the person of Booker Short, a young black man from Oklahoma. Short has messed up his life. He grew dope on his grandfather's land, forged checks, did prison time. And he found out that his grandfather, wealthy farmer Isaac Bentham, was not a man to defy.

Bentham is rigid, arrogant and, yes, loving, but any love he has for his grandson is shadowed by a value system that greets the world with anger - especially the world of white people.

Bentham has told Short a tale: During World War II, a white man from Kansas City commanded him and a group of black soldiers. That officer, Mercury Chapman, failed to stop the execution of a black GI. Chapman, Bentham claims, was prejudiced.

"Mercury Chapman," Bentham tells his grandson, "cured me of the dangerous idea that a white man could be my friend."

Not black and white

Short, though, eventually finds that his grandfather's version of the truth is not exactly black and white.

After his prison stint, Short dares not go back to Bentham's farm. He jumps his parole and heads for Kansas City, partly to confront Chapman about the story and also to extract some kind of compensation from him.

Young man and old man, black man and white man, are wary of each other. Booker can't bring himself to blurt out Bentham's tale, though he does identify himself as Bentham's grandson.

Wonders Chapman: How much does this young man know?

Wonders Short: What kind of game can I play with this old man?

Chapman gives Short a job working at his hunting club in rural Missouri. Both men dance around the subject of Chapman's war years.

"It was blackmail, really - only by mutual consent," Terrell writes.

But in this relationship in which suspicion is elemental, Chapman and Short find themselves admiring each other. For a "racist," Chapman is a man of integrity, Short thinks. And while Chapman knows Short has had "trouble with the law," he shelters him, impressed by his intelligence.

Into many bonds, though, come third-party complications. Here, the third party's name is Clarissa Sayers. She is the daughter of Thornton Sayers, one of Chapman's hunting buddies, a widower and federal judge.

Short and Clarissa Sayers begin a romance, but this debutante-turned-college-student is not a woman well-equipped for a love affair. Her father has done things to her that fathers aren't supposed to do.

Nor is the timing of Short's entry into Clarissa Sayers' exclusive world ideal: Not long after they have been seen at several KC events, she is found far east of town, in the Missouri River.

She has been murdered.

No mystery

Murder or not, though, The Huntsman is not genre fiction.

Terrell's narrative drive is admirable, but he is not content with entertaining readers. The racial divide, the loneliness that transcends the personal and lies like a fog over Kansas City, is the book's essence.

Terrell is a writer haunted not only by race but also by class. His novel is about power as well as color. In a recent interview, he declared himself part of a small literary movement he calls "brutalism."

In Terrell's world, Thomas Hobbes is wrong. Life without the civilizing influences of society, Hobbes declared in Leviathan, would be "poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Terrell thinks human society can be more pulverizing than civilizing.

"Society is a brutalizing force," Terrell says. "Social pressure is a brutalizing force, social pressure as defined by the power of the group, the power of class, the power of race, to divide people and keep people apart."

Terrell has supported his beliefs with a first novel in which there is nary a knee jerk. His blacks aren't perfect victims nor his whites perfect villains. Prejudice exists on both sides, and Terrell is telling us the truth: If we all want to get along, we'd better work harder at it, and that means living together and talking, even if the talk can be as painful as the dialogue between Booker Short and Mercury Chapman.

The Huntsman is not flawless. Terrell has much on his mind, and the book's beginning spins many threads. But it doesn't take long for him to control his material, and by the novel's end, he's in command.

Resolution, in fact, is Terrell's great gift; there are exquisite scenes of reconciliation here. One involves a KC detective named Marcy Keegan and a country boy named Stan Granger. Though Keegan serves mostly as a plot functionary, her flirtation with Granger becomes a reaffirmation of the male/female bond, a symbolic righting of the wrongs in Judge Sayers' tainted kinship with Clarissa.

In another scene, Booker Short floats down the Missouri River on a skiff. He's alone, but it's as if the character has become a fusion of Huck and Jim from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn - as if Terrell has, at least for himself, resolved the slights and hurts of two centuries.

The fate of Mercury Chapman, notably the lack of consequences over harm done to him, is more problematic. But again, Terrell is no mere mystery novelist. Mystery writers redress crimes: A murder victim cannot be brought back to life, but a perpetrator can be punished.

Terrell has given us something finer and more complex: He has devised a literary handshake between hands dark and pale. In an imperfect world, we cannot punish all bad and reward all good. But we can come to understand that skin color really does not exist, that we are all one color, all capable of rights and wrongs on any given day, and that the seemingly vast differences among us are not black or white or red or yellow, but only shades of gray.