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Publication: The Kansas City Star
Author: John Mark Eberhart
Date: October 02, 2005
Hitting close to home with difficult truths
Kings County tackles racism's role in building the burbs
"This wasn't accidental. These things occurred for reasons, and I think it's important to be honest about why and how they occurred." – Kansas City novelist Whitney Terrell
Second novels can be problematic.
Joseph Heller's Something Happened doesn't stand up to Catch-22. And in the cases of Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger, the second novels never happened at all. Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye remain their sole contributions to the form.
When Kansas City novelist Whitney Terrell finished an early draft of The King of Kings County, his follow-up to The Huntsman, he was worried he "had the second-novel curse."
"It was an 800-page book. It was told from three different points of view." And one of those three narrators was telling his version of the tale "from the grave, and it's very hard (for a writer) to pull that off."
Fortunately, Terrell knew what he had to do: Rewrite.
He dropped two of his narrators, including the dead man, and he tightened. The result is a 361-page novel that succeeds not only as an excellent yarn about a father and son but also as a story of how cities develop.
Terrell's narrator is Jack Acheson. It is the 1950s in Kansas City, and Jack's father, Alton, is a rather crude but savvy fellow who's about to make big bucks. He may not be the best-mannered man in the world, but he knows that the coming of Interstate 35 to the city offers him the chance to clean up in the real-estate market.
But Alton Acheson's methods are a bit shady. He hoodwinks farmers out of land in Kings County (Johnson County to you and me), buying up parcels along the highway corridor that will be worth a great deal.
More disturbingly, he elicits help from the African-American community to get a kind of domino effect rolling: With the help of a black real estate agent, he starts moving people of color into white neighborhoods, provoking white flight into new neighborhoods - an approach that gets home sales churning but also makes a segregated city even more divided.
Jack's reaction to his father is the kind of mixed reaction sons often have to their sires: He is fascinated but also, at times, ashamed and angry.
Those emotional elements persuaded Terrell that the book had to be rendered from Jack's vantage point.
"I wanted this to be a personal story; I just knew it should be this kid's story. That was difficult because I had written a successful book in third person.
"Jack is not myself; he's 20 years older than I am. But it was a way to make what could have been an overly technical, historical look at the city more personal. It's personal first, then the stuff about real estate comes in later."
Though the figures are fictions, Terrell says, the story is real. The author did a great deal of research about the Kansas City area in the 1950s and found some disquieting, coalescing forces.
The city's trolley system faded as the interstates encroached. Meanwhile, the courts were ordering schools desegregated. Whites began fleeing the urban core, abetted by the new thoroughfares that made getting back and forth - between jobs and the new suburbs - easy.
Terrell allows that the book's themes may make some people a little uncomfortable - which, by the way, is one of the functions of fiction, after all.
"But this wasn't accidental," he adds. "These things occurred for reasons, and I think it's important to be honest about why and how they occurred."
Especially because The King of Kings County is a novel not simply relevant to Kansas City but to many cities. In "real life" in the America of the 1950s and 1960s, metropolitan areas all over the country were seeing the same pattern.
Terrell does balk when asked whether certain characters in the novel are based on real Kansas Citians.
"It's up to readers to draw those parallels. I'm not willing to say. If I'd wanted to do that, I would've written a nonfiction book."
For those who know something about the town's background, a character named Prudential Bowen presents a temptation to draw one of those parallels. Compared with Bowen, Alton Acheson is a wannabe; Bowen is truly upper crust and has the resources to transform a town - much like a J.C. Nichols, maybe?
Point of order: Jeannette Nichols is Terrell's aunt by marriage. All he'll say is, "I grew up around real estate people."
Ultimately, though, his hesitance to "connect the dots" between reality and the book makes sense. Readers who insist on playing too many guessing games with the novel are going to miss its point. Much like Jane Smiley's Good Faith, The King of Kings County reminds us that the real estate market in which many of us participate can be a risky place.
"For most people, the largest purchase they'll ever make is buying a house. And they're participating in that market all the time, asking, 'What neighborhood do I want to be in? What's going to go up in value? Maybe it will if I buy here or here.' "
Those risks are played out on a larger scale, too. As Kansas City and other burgs discovered, the robust development of the suburbs often resulted in desolate urban centers.
In recent years, that trend has been reversing somewhat; just look at Kansas City's downtown, which seems to be seeing a renaissance that could lead to a healthier residential and retail community.
But it's not a one-way street. As Kansas City strives to rebound, it faces competition from communities like Overland Park, which has positioned itself not only as bedroom community but also as an alternative for convention business. And new development at the region's outer edges continues - hence the word "exurb" in the contemporary lexicon.
Count Terrell, though, as a cautious optimist. Though he warns that "capitalism is amoral; it's value-neutral," he also notes that some of the awful things he writes about in The King of Kings County have lessened their grip on society. To be specific, he thinks developers have learned that "capitalism and racism are incompatible. It doesn't work anymore."
For those brave enough to face the truth, The King of Kings County will reveal how it once did.