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Publication: Los Angeles Times
Author: Adam Hill
Date: August 22, 2005
A telling tale of father and son and the ties that blind
IN the last half-century, American fiction has been blessed by fine writers who have treated the settings of suburbia as grand subjects in themselves. In works by John Cheever or John Updike or Ann Beattie, suburbia becomes an emblem of malaise and compromise — it's an agreeable facade that cannot, for very long, hide the disenchantment within. But what we haven't seen dramatized quite so often or so well is how this promised land of the suburbs came to be created.
That subject is at the heart of Whitney Terrell's engrossing second novel, "The King of Kings County." Alton Acheson is the would-be king of Kings County, and his kingdom lies in the cornfields outside Kansas City, Mo. As much a huckster as a visionary, his triumphs and travails are told by his son, Jack, and in this telling we come to realize how this particular suburb owes its creation and flourishing to the same sorts of forces that are behind many others: the presence of a racial divide. We see cynical opportunism at work in the exodus of white families from the city to new housing developments. We see Acheson first scamming land from farmers, and then moving black families into white neighborhoods in order to engineer white flight.
But because this tale comes from a mostly loving, mostly naive son, it is a richer and subtler story than simply one of greed and its consequences. In Jack's gradually developing conscience, the story of his father's rise and fall takes on a tragic grandeur. Yes, Alton makes deals with devils in the form of local mobsters who use him as a front. Yes, he makes his own family members accomplices to his corrupt deeds. But his cunning is always enveloped in his warm, buffoonish charm, and his dreams are modeled on those of robber barons whose shady practices had, by the middle of the 20th century, become the stuff of capitalist legends.
That development — how the most successfully greedy can become American heroes — is an interesting sub-theme in the novel because it is one of the primary reasons for Jack's need to set the record straight, as he explains:
"Because when a story is created to give its owners protection — as most business stories are — from having to hear certain words or certain concepts, somebody must at some point commit to being its author. This job, if the story fails or is rejected, can be as dangerous as telling the truth. In order to explain why the story must be changed, the author must be willing to say what really did happen, often to people who expect to be protected from these kinds of things."
"The King of Kings County" is also the story of a boy who becomes an unsuccessful man, a man who, even in his 30s, has not truly escaped the stunting legacies of his childhood. The second part of the novel depicts Jack's return home after a prolonged absence. He is a promising attorney, but he's listing and soon finds himself all too easily immersed again in his father's life and that of his high school sweetheart. It's as if Terrell is adding his own cautionary rejoinder to Thomas Wolfe's famous notion that you can't go home again; and that is because if you do, you won't be able to change what caused you to leave in the first place.
Jack comes to realize this and resigns himself to a quiet, unremarkable life in the diminished shadow of his father. He knows what his father and his father's associates have done in creating the suburbia of Kings County, but he doesn't seem to know what that has done to him. He remains a somewhat wistful and dispassionate observer of life into his 40s.
The novel's final chapter offers a rather poignant shift of tone, and even substance, that gives readers an experience of Jack's truest attempt to understand how he became the person he is. Not a king, not even the son of a king, but a man who can accept the truth and try to live peacefully with it.