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Publication: The Charlotte Observer
Author: Ashley Warlick
Date: January 1, 2006
"The King of Kings County" is Whitney Terrell's second novel, and with it he claims his province as a writer: the heart of the heart of the country, both physically and philosophically.
Told in the humble, sorting voice of Jack Acheson, casting back to his youth at the heels of his silver-tongued father, this is the pieced-together evolution of Kansas City from mid-century to present, from its grand boulevards and streetcars and steak houses, to the back room dealings, real estate monty and social gamesmanship that divide the city today.
It's also a book about what it is to be the child of a man you might not ever understand.
Jack's first memories of his father, Alton, paint him bathrobed and unemployed, "spending his evenings on our apartment's white-columned porch, thumbing biographies."
Henry Ford, Jay Gould, Tom Durant of Union Pacific: Alton Acheson's manifest destiny soon becomes bound up in the cut of imminent Interstate 35 though Kansas City, and by turns, organized crime, racial politics and the iron-fisted will of real estate developer Prudential Bowen.
It's Bowen who first agrees to back Alton in his land speculation that precedes the interstate into the countryside, buying up farms for a fraction of their worth.
It's mob accountant Nick Garaciello who bails out Alton when Bowen's motives prove ulterior.
And it's Elmore Haywood, former football player turned janitor at Jack's private school, who helps Alton relocate black people to neighborhoods in the city most likely to funnel white people out, into the new subdivisions in Kings County.
Jack catches what he can, first as his father's straight man in power lunch charades and later, in his own brokering with younger generations of Bowens and Garaciellos.
At all-boys Pemberton Academy, Jack is something of an outcast; Lonnie Garaciello, with his slicked-back hair and well-chipped shoulder, a total pariah.
The summer of Alton's big deal, Jack takes a page from his father's book and bluffs his way into the company of Geanie Bowen, Prudential's brainy, cool-eyed granddaughter.
But when this partnership turns tragic, the implications of the story Jack and his father create to cover the truth will take the better part of both their lives to reconcile.
This is a portrayal of people and place that seems at once handmade and meticulously drawn from likely events. As such, it becomes iconographic, a map of all our messy allegiances and sprawl, the shaky ground of American business ethics itself.
In his enthusiasm, Terrell sometimes can't get out of his own way, and some of the implications of what Bowen, Acheson and Elmore Haywood are doing get spelled out in boldface after they've already been whispered clear - but the scope of the story is so ambitious, it's a forgivable emphasis.
The plot continues to twist and turn on itself right to the novel's last pages.
"The King of Kings County" feels as much like a social history as it does a memoir of dissemblance, as it does a sweeping saga of the American dream fallen into soiled hands.
But, finally, it's the reflection of human need in sanitized suburbia that draws the book's strings tight.
Home for her grandfather's funeral, everything about the place and the people she grew up with changed, Geanie says, "You take a kid who always got picked on, who's desperate to fit in, give him some money, and you've got the kind of person who lives in Fairhaven Estates."
"Or who builds it," Jack says.