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Publication: San Francisco Chronicle
Author: Edward Hower
Date: August 21, 2005
The business world has often been fertile ground for fiction. In the 19th century, Horatio Alger's books inspired generations of boys to believe that with pluck and luck they could strike it rich. Later writers, though, began to show the dark side of capitalism. Frank Norris' "The Octopus," Theodore Dreiser's Cowperwood novels and John Dos Passos' USA trilogy chronicled corporate greed, and in the 1950s, Sloan Wilson's "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" became a symbol of executive despair.
In the 1930s, Sinclair Lewis's real estate man, George Babbitt, exemplified everything that was unscrupulous, vulgar and sanctimonious about Midwestern land-grabbing in the years before the Great Depression. Now another era of real-estate expansion, the building of the interstate highway system in the early 1960s, is the subject of a new novel, "The King of Kings County," by Whitney Terrell.
Terrell's turf is Kansas City, Mo., where the adolescent narrator, Jack, watches his father, a man with the auspicious name of Alton Acheson, rise from a penniless hustler to become one of the area's leading movers and shakers. Acheson's climb is tied up with the fortunes of the powerful Bowen family, who have created what the business community considers Kansas City's greatest landmark. This would be a shopping center named the Campanile, which includes three-quarter-scale models of Florence's famous architectural sites, "with the doge's Venetian palace thrown in as a bonus." "The goal in business is to convince everybody else that you know something they don't," Acheson tells his son, describing the deals leading to the construction of the Campanile. Though he can't afford to eat at Kansas City's toniest restaurants, he shows up in them to glad-hand the city's business leaders, once snatching a bottle of Chianti from a waiter so as to be seen by everyone toasting a potential investor in a Bowen scheme.
Anticipating a boom in real estate bordering the expanding highway system, he enlists his family to help him secretly survey land he wants to buy. Everyone shows up disguised as picnickers with baskets of food, in case a local farmer wonders what strangers are doing on his property. Jack is sometimes embarrassed by his old man's ideas. When Acheson is invited to talk to a high school class, he gets Jack to repeat all he's told him about a tycoon named Tom Durand who grabbed half of Iowa for the railroads, laying down the track in wavy lines across the state because he was being paid by the mile. "I am sure ..." the teacher says, "that Mr. Acheson is by no means trying to suggest that all American businesses are run this way." Jack's father replies, "Only the ones that work. ... The rest are just a dream."
The racial population shifts of the 1960s are deftly exploited by Acheson and Elmore Haywood, his African American associate. Jack notices that well- dressed black families are appearing at his father's house seeking help with their mortgage papers. Backed by Bowen money, Acheson moves them into old white neighborhoods in the dead of night to escape the wrath of home owners fearing that their property values will go down. Despite their protests, his neighbors eventually join the exodus to the new Bowen-built all-white suburbs.
Acheson enlists the help of a mobster, Bobby Ansi, to finance his schemes. Terrell has a gift for showing how the world of legitimate finance and organized crime blend perfectly, as when, in a hilariously deadpan scene, Bobby and his henchmen come to a Thanksgiving dinner at Acheson's nouveau- upscale mansion to join forces.
The author is less skilled, however, at creating credible, three- dimensional characters who develop as the book moves along. Unlike Lewis' Babbitt, Acheson, as cynical a scoundrel at the beginning of the book as he is at the end, never questions the meaning of his life or shows an interest in any of his colleagues. We know little about how his ill-gotten wealth has affected him personally, except that he has acquired a taste for golf. Lonnie, the socially awkward son of Acheson's business partner, and Geanie, the rebellious heiress to the Bowen fortune and the girl Jack loves all his life, rarely engage us emotionally. As a boy, Jack goes along with his father's schemes without understanding much about the old man's failings as a husband or father. Later, as a 35-year-old lawyer, he finally confronts the elderly Acheson with the assertion that "The Campanile's not Florence, it's a bunch of shops built next to a river of s -- ." But the scene lacks any drama, because Jack has been clear-mindedly observant of his father's bloated hype since the book's opening pages.
Its weak character development aside, Whitney Terrell's "The King of Kings County" presents a fascinating view of the behind-the-scenes workings of some truly American commercial scams.