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Publication: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Author: Frank Reiss
Date: August 28, 2005
Verdict: A big, fat, juicy novel of conflicting values and elusive dreams.
The suburbanization of America has inspired countless books from countless angles. Some trace its history. Some predict its future. Some try to explain its causes. Many chronicle its impact. There have been economic studies, social analyses, environmental tracts, aesthetic judgments and spiritual contemplations.
Kansas City novelist Whitney Terrell's second book (after 2001's "The Huntsman") is all of the above, and more, as only a good novel can be. "The King of Kings County" is a big, fat, juicy novel, consumed with conflicting values and blurring lines of meaning, reality and imagination, business ethics and criminality, taking and escaping responsibility, chasing dreams and making peace with nightmares, inventing the future and obliterating the past.
The book's title character is the unforgettable Alton Acheson, who rambles through Terrell's book with the cockiness of the schoolyard sports hero he was. Flamboyantly attired in a yellow suit, out-of-fashion hat and shaggy hair, Acheson is an audacious schemer, convinced he's destined for the greatness of his heroes: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Stanford and, especially, Tom Durant, architect of the Union Pacific Railroad.
Rather than address his son's class about his profession, as all the other fathers did, Acheson lectures the boys on the history of American business, epitomized by Durant, as a history of cheating, deceit and out-and-out theft. When the teacher suggests "that Mr. Acheson is by no means trying to suggest that all American businesses are run this way," Acheson adds, "Only the ones that work. . . . The rest are just a dream."
Acheson's son Jack narrates the story of how Alton, anticipating the building of the interstate highway system, schemes, like Durant a century earlier, to acquire the land in its path before anyone else, including Kansas City's biggest real estate developers. The roguish Acheson lacks the means to obtain his goal single-handedly, so he must connive and manipulate the established local powers: the Bowen family, who overtly wield power over the city, and the mob.
In daring and inventive --- and of course dishonest --- ways, Acheson effects the removal of unsuspecting farm families to clear the way for new development. He then blatantly uses the fear of integration to encourage white flight to the new suburbs. What he and his investors leave behind is what was left in most urban areas during this era: an inner-city trap for poor blacks abandoned by the tax base that escaped to the suburbs.
Young Jack is powerless to escape his father's funnel cloud of energy until it drops him into the world of the mysterious and alluring Geanie Bowen, heiress to the local real estate fortune, and Lonnie and Nikki Graciello, children of the city's less respectable players. The four alienated teenagers form a club and eventually conspire to free themselves from each of their troubling family burdens. Their bumbling scheme ends tragically, but most significantly for the reader, their ascendance in the plot displaces the irrepressible Alton from the story's center for almost the entire middle third of the book.
He returns, his dreams not having quite worked out as he would have liked, but, despite the sprawling changes to Kansas City his actions have wrought, he is largely unrepentant. The book's most transformed character is Jack, left to make sense of his father's legacy, and his own life of mistakes and unattained desire.
The book's characters are no doubt personifications of the forces that have reshaped the American landscape during the past 50 years. There are plenty of speeches like, "How do you think he became the biggest taxpayer? . . . He did it by sucking all the other businesses out of the city, out of downtown, out of the east side." And regular observations like, "There was no hint of a sidewalk anywhere . . . no balconied porches, or hotel awnings, or lush elm trees that had made . . . the intersection . . . so walkable in its day."
But Terrell is too good of a writer for his characters to feel like symbols or for his story to be a morality lesson. "The King of Kings County" packs its significant punch on the power of its human relationships --- between parents and children, friends and lovers, and rival business interests --- its consideration of the meaning of place and, of course, Alton Acheson, who like "All the King's Men's" Willie Stark and even Huck Finn, reminds us that any search for the meaning of America starts with a warts-and-all portrait of Americans.