Whitney Terrell has made a career exploring taboos our city folks don’t talk about.
His 2001 novel, The Huntsman, was about an African-American ex-con’s love affair with a debutante who gets murdered, fracturing a pretend City of Fountains along that all-too-real east-of-Troost divide. It was a New York Times Notable Book, and the Chicago Tribune called his thickly descriptive social commentary reminiscent of Faulkner, Conrad and Melville.
Terrell’s new book is The King of Kings County, a novel some might read as a conspiracy theory explaining white flight to Johnson County. It explores a mob-backed mid-1960s scam funded by real estate tycoon named Prudential Bowen (the late J.C. Nichols?) who sweeps up farm properties along the projected route of a federally backed highway project (Interstate 35?) in anticipation of migration to the suburbs (Johnson County?).
The story is narrated by 14-year-old Jack Acheson, the son of fast-talking but destitute con man Alton Acheson, who secures Bowen’s backing and thinks the idea of moving blacks downtown and harnessing the resulting sprawl neatly recalls his avaricious idol, 19th-century railroad baron Tom Durant. Looking back, Jack must reconcile his role as resigned sidekick and face his father’s legacy — part of which is a burned-out urban core (our downtown?).
“Anytime you have something that everybody knows but nobody talks about, that’s what novels are for,” Terrell tells the Pitch. “I guess the elephants in the room that I see have to do with stuff on this sort of city and social level.” He adds that he’s concerned “less about the nuclear family and more how that family reacts with its surroundings and the city itself.”
The Pembroke Hill grad, who later attended Princeton and the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop, says unfamiliar territory is an ideal backdrop for his fiction.
“The Huntsman required more imagination outside of personal experience, but part of fiction is to pay attention,” he says. “More people should imagine how to live there.” Kings, however, examines the more repugnant nature of upper-crusty relationships and class tensions. The book “is all about a kid who goes to a private school like Pembroke Hill,” he explains. “So in that sense, I feel like I’m pretty much on home turf,” Terrell says.
Of course, Terrell first bailed on Kansas City.
“I thought it was boring,” he says. “I didn’t think there was really anything there to write about. You know what it’s like growing up. You sort of feel like something’s going on but don’t know what it is.” By the mid-’90s, he was living in New York. He had finished a book about fishing in Alaska, but no one was biting. After starting The Huntsman, he decided to return to his roots, buying a home a few blocks east of Troost and taking a teaching post at Rockhurst University. Later, he was named the New Letters writer-in-residence at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“I start out books asking questions I don’t know the answers to,” he says. And he encourages other writers to spin heartland yarns.
“I think people are starting to recognize that some of the issues facing America, both in economic and political terms, are being most clearly expressed in the Midwest,” he says. So exactly how much of Kings is political commentary?
“Well,” Terrell begins wryly, “this is where the fiction writer has to bow out and say, ‘Draw your own conclusions.'”