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Publication: Lawrence Journal-World
Date: August 28, 2005

The King of Kansas City
Author’s second novel probes dark corners of his hometown’s evolution

If you work, shop or otherwise frequent Kansas City, you know I-70 and I-35.

The highways approach the metropolis from where green farmland still rolls near their shoulders. One plows through the suburban sprawl of Johnson County, and both surge into the hot heart of downtown Kansas City.

But in 1956, when Whitney Terrell’s second novel, “The King of Kings County,” opens, those rivers of concrete had not yet arrived. For farmers, the unadulterated land symbolized an average livelihood, a way of life.

But developers saw bigger dollar signs in the cornstalks.

New roads could carry a cavalcade of cars occupied by an army of suburbanites to pastures-turned-neighborhoods full of well-equipped homes with two-car garages.

Unfortunately, their vision sucked the vitality out of the city’s center, blew it to the periphery of town and left racial division in its wake.

“I have been interested for years in what happened to Kansas City’s downtown, why it emptied out,” says Terrell, a Kansas City native. “What the freeway did really was instead of bring people to downtown, as the city fathers at the time imagined it would, it siphoned people away.

“My thought experiment for the book was that somebody had to see that coming.”

In Terrell’s novel, that somebody is Alton Acheson, the would-be king of Kings County, who sees his big break barreling right toward Kansas City in the form of two interstate highways that will crisscross his boyhood home. Much like his hero, railroad tycoon Tom Durant, who “stole half of Iowa for the Union Pacific,” Alton wants to snatch up the land in one of the highway’s paths, develop it and turn it for a fortune-making profit.

Trouble is, his ambitions exceed his means.

So he gets in cahoots with Prudential Bowen, the filthy rich developer who built the city’s central shopping plaza and most of its residential neighborhoods. With his financial backing — and a few mafia dollars and connections — Alton starts slinking around Kings County, scoping out properties that will abut the highway and all but stealing them from their unsuspecting owners.

We learn all of this from Alton’s teenage son, Jack, who narrates the book and struggles to reconcile the simultaneous horror and fascination his father’s schemes rouse in him.

Perhaps more troubling than the land grab is the method used to bolster its success: Alton begins offering affordable mortgages to black families in his own neighborhood to encourage white flight straight into Bowen’s cozy developments — protected as they are by racial covenants.

This tactic, which creates very real color lines in Kansas City, isn’t a device of fiction, Terrell says.

“The novel is relevant because those lines still exist,” he explains. “If anything, they’re becoming stronger. Kansas City is a hyper-segregated market. Harvard did a study a few years back, and we ranked very high. In fact, the study showed that cities like Kansas City — and we’re not alone in this — are as segregated or more segregated than they were before the civil rights laws came along.”

What’s more sinister than the reality, Terrell says, is that it didn’t come about by accident.

“The fact that a house is worth more money in an all-white neighborhood is an idea that was invented by real estate developers and taught to Americans — not just in Kansas City, but in cities across the country — over a period of 100 years,” he says. “And today that idea is deeply ingrained in our consciousness.

“I live in a black neighborhood, like eight blocks from where I grew up — but across the color line. So my house is worth, literally, a tenth of what it would be worth on the other side of the color line.”

Enforcing old system

Weaved into Terrell’s exposé of the ugly underbelly of business is a story of love and coming of age. Jack, a student at Pemberton Academy, pines for Geanie Bowen, the wealthy, redheaded granddaughter of his father’s business associate. They conduct an on-again, off-again romance, but Jack always remains wary of her family’s wealth and the dubious practices that led to it.

These feelings are reinforced by Jack’s friend, Lonnie Garaciello, a mob accountant’s “greaser” son who has a fast car and a penchant for following rich white women to their country club homes just to scare them. He detests people who live off an inheritance and contends that people like Geanie can’t pretend to be innocent just because they’re a generation or two removed from the devious routes their fathers took to the bank.

Although unattractive in some ways, Lonnie says things that are indisputably true, Terrell says.

“The idea that just because you don’t know how your neighborhood was formed ... doesn’t mean that you aren’t an active participant in a society or a city that has chosen to divide itself up that way,” he says. “I guess the argument would be that Kansas Citians and Americans know how segregation works, and in public they’re against it, but in private, in the way that they buy their houses, they still enforce that old system.”

Hometown boy

Apart from telling a compelling story, “The King of Kings County” introduces readers to the streets and neighborhoods of Terrell’s home town. The New Letters visiting writer at the University of Missouri-Kansas City grew up in a house at 54th and Oak. His parents still live there.

He attended Pembroke-Country Day, now Pembroke Hill, a private school near the Country Club Plaza. He returned to Kansas City after getting creative writing degrees at Princeton University and the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and living for a year in New York. He already had begun his first novel, “The Huntsman,” also set in Kansas City. Published in 2001, it was named a New York Times Notable Book.

Terrell was humbled by the reception of “The Huntsman” in his hometown.

“It was, it seemed to me, widely embraced by people that I had never met,” he recalls. “Book groups read it. Colleges and high schools taught it all across the city. At Penn Valley, still, it’s required reading for all incoming freshmen.”

That encouragement might have helped him through “The King of Kings County,” which he remembers being incredibly difficult to write. Much to his embarrassment, he trashed his first 800-page draft in 2003 and started over, asking his editor at Viking to be patient while he found a way to tell the story successfully.

“I had to figure out a way to write about these business-oriented themes and find characters that embodied them and were interesting and compelling, so that the characters were in the foreground and the business was in the background,” he says.

Taking attention in stride

Though readers most certainly will draw connections between characters and places in the book and people and locales in real life — Prudential Bowen seems modeled after JC Nichols, the Campanile after the Country Club Plaza and Kings County after Johnson County — Terrell insists the novel is not a roman à clef.

“Any fiction writer is going to use the history of the place that he came from,” he says. “But in fiction, you change people: You change their descriptions, you change their behaviors, you change the elements of their life. And so to suggest that there’s a one-to-one correspondence between one historical figure and a fictional character that you invent is unfair.”

The 37-year-old writer is working out ideas for his next novel — in between photo shoots with Entertainment Weekly and People magazine, which both ran favorable reviews of “The King of Kings County,” along with the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Terrell is approaching the attention with the same sense of humor that laces his latest novel.

“This is a completely different level of attention than what ‘The Huntsman’ received,” he says. “I’m not complaining. It’s great, and I feel lucky. The Entertainment Weekly review was just really astonishing, and when somebody writes a review like that, you just want to go over to their house and clean their kitchen for them and mow the lawn.”