THE KING OF KINGS COUNTY
By Whitney Terrell
Viking. 361 pp. $24.95
Of course, if you're interested in buying real estate, you're too late (or too early). Whether we're in the final moments before a calamitous drop or merely, as Alan Greenspan put it, enduring a little "froth," the housing market is insane. I know this because I'm clinging to the shiny skin of the real estate bubble, and the view from here is breathtaking. This spring my wife and I bought a little house in Bethesda over the Internet without seeing it first. We bid $30,000 over the asking price and waived the right to inspect it. Despite this loony bit of financial irresponsibility, everybody regularly congratulates us on "getting in."
A far safer investment can be found in America's steady supply of good real estate novels. It's hard to go wrong in a neighborhood that includes Richard Ford's Independence Day, Steven Millhauser's Martin Dressler, Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full and Jane Smiley's Good Faith. The latest offering to come up for sale is Whitney Terrell's The King of Kings County, which blends the history of America's suburban development with a boy's moral critique of his fast-talking father.
The story opens in 1956 in Kansas City, Mo., where Alton Acheson dreams of following the path of Tom Durant, a 19th-century railroad tycoon. Part Harold Hill, part Willy Loman, Acheson pores over the details of Durant's crooked life, convinced he can create a similar real estate empire by anticipating the arrival of the federal highway system, that great river of concrete that flowed over America, creating, destroying and remaking cities everywhere. "It's going to be the biggest land grab since Tom Durant stole half of Iowa for the Union Pacific," he announces, "and I'd like to run it."
The only problem is that Acheson has nothing to invest except an oversupply of confidence. His plan rests on winning the financial backing of an imperial gentleman named Prudential Bowen, who single-handedly built and continues to control the city's central shopping complex and residential neighborhoods. Once he wins that break, Acheson implements a shameless scheme that involves tempting and intimidating poor farmers out of their land, acreage he knows will soar in value with the interstate's arrival. When Bowen makes it clear that he has no intention of tolerating a rival baron, Acheson switches tactics and begins a cynical program of racial fear-mongering to ignite white flight, creating bargains in town and windfalls in the county.
Terrell brilliantly dramatizes the confluence of federal funding, state zoning, racial tensions, family ideals and local shenanigans that created the places in which most of us live and work. But what gives the book its moral complexity is the narrator, Acheson's son, Jack, who recalls these events with smoldering irony from a distance of 20 years. Even as a child, Jack sensed something troubling about his father's gassy enthusiasm, his slick appearance. "My father was the kind of man who, the less he knew about something, the more decisive his actions would be," Jack says. "If you looked at him from a distance, you would get the feeling he was posing for a photo shoot, an expose on the good life, there in his starched peach shirt and his suspenders, and his hair swept back from his face."
But what really bothered him was being used as a prop in his father's dubious schemes with men who saw through him. "It wasn't an easy business for a kid who was easily embarrassed. As much as I wanted to help my father, I dreaded the moments when these men smelled out our act and forced him to order drinks, then watched through slitted eyes as he acted surprised to find his wallet empty. I hated being poked and prodded like Charlie McCarthy at his side -- enough so that I began to evaporate at lunchtime, drifting off to the public tennis courts." When his long-suffering mother tells him, "There's a lot of kids who'd feel lucky to eat with their dad," Jack fires back, "We don't eat." After delivering rehearsed dialogues for duped farmers or pretending to picnic while his father conducted illegal surveys, Jack realizes that what embarrassed him most wasn't his father's dubious ethics but the man's pathetic smallness in comparison to his dream.
Acheson knows the secret to real estate value is location, location, location, but the same thing might be said of the heart, and he never seems to appreciate the emotional distance between him and his son. For Jack, one of the unintended effects of telling this story is a sympathetic move toward his father. Bitterness moderates into tenderness, and Jack's condescension gradually fades, even as the full breadth of his father's ethical failings grows clearer. Part of that tempering stems from Jack's mature reconsideration of his teenage years, his status as a hapless outsider in pursuit of his own unattainable dream: the granddaughter of Prudential Bowen. That tentative high school romance takes the novel into a remarkably sensitive portrayal of class envy and guilt as teenagers experience it -- before they grow old enough to move into gated communities and extol the value of diversity.
This is Terrell's second novel, following a well-received debut in 2001 called The Huntsman, which also focused on Kansas City. With another novel this good, he'll put Kansas City on the literary map with Anne Tyler's Baltimore and William Kennedy's Albany. An immense amount of historical and financial research underpins The King of Kings County, and yet all that detail is gracefully integrated into a story that is essentially about fathers and sons, the way each generation creates or miscreates a home for the next one. By the time Jack finishes what begins as a stinging indictment of his father, he's making a quiet plea for his own forgiveness. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.