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Publication: Rocky Mountain News
Author: Mary J. Elkins
Date: August 26, 2005
Father's shady, get-rich schemes fuel 'King'
The King of Kings County is the second novel written by Whitney Terrell and, like the first one, The Huntsman, its setting is Kansas City, Mo., Terrell's own hometown. The Huntsman was singled out for critical praise and named a New York Times Notable Book in 2001.
This second novel seems a worthy successor, sharing more than just setting. Terrell continues his exploration of the themes of coming-of-age, family relationships, racism and the American dream with all its complexities and contradictions.
At the center of the novel is Alton Acheson, the "King" of the title and the father of Jack, the narrator. Alton is a dreamer and a schemer, a man whose heroes are Jay Gould, Henry Ford and Tom Durant, the president of the Union Pacific Railroad, the man who drove the golden spike at the completion of the track. He admires not only their success but the recklessness and ruthlessness that took them from poverty to astounding wealth. He intends to join their fellowship.
As the novel begins, the road to these riches has been elusive. "(B)y the summer of 1954, my father's greatness still remained a phantom, believed in by no one but my mother and me," Jack tells us.
Soon enough, though, his opportunity arrives. He learns that President Eisenhower has sent a bill to Congress authorizing the construction of a major interstate that will run right through Kansas City. Alton foresees the upcoming land grab and determines to get in on it. Since he is without capital or political connections, he needs to get both, and he goes about this with quirky imagination and a total inability to be embarrassed or shamed. Much of what he does is. at best, on shaky legal ground, but with role models like Gould and Ford, his misgivings are easily quashed.
Alton makes accomplices of his wife and son, involving them in charades to fool his "clients" and the owners of the land he's eyeing. Jack has some misgivings, but his feelings are mixed. He finds these schemes and charades ridiculous and small potatoes compared to the extravagant gestures of Tom Durant. He worries that his father is more buffoon than budding tycoon.
The narrative moves along at a leisurely, engaging pace, tracking not only Alton's progress but the everyday life of a boy growing up, going to school, making friends with the children of the mob family with whom Alton has made a devil's deal. One of the strengths of the novel is Jack's personality. Like the sensible one in a television sitcom, he's surrounded by eccentrics, and his ordinariness gives the others richer, deeper colors.
Alton is, of course, the most eccentric of all, and Terrell's descriptive skills are put to good use every time he comes on stage. Here is our first encounter with him, and our first introduction to the father/son relationship: "He went about 260 in those days, one of those formerly athletic men whose size allowed dandifications that others might not risk. He had long, white-blond hair, he affected foulards and straw boaters long after they were out of date; he could be observed in tan seersucker and white oxfords in the spring - a hell of a wardrobe which embarrassed me greatly. But his favorite outfit was a yellow suit of baggy linen with a black string tie and a kid gray fedora. Following him in that getup, as he elbowed his way down Bowen Boulevard that cold November night, his hair all glittery gold against his neck, was like following a crazed Custer through a welter of black-hatted braves."
The King of Kings County is not without problems. Jack's mother is something of a cipher, even though it's clear that Terrell intends otherwise. In fact, no female character in the novel is as compelling as the males. And there are times when the pace is a little too leisurely and the reader verges on losing interest.
But neither of these flaws seriously undermines the novel. Terrell has written an enjoyable book.