'The King of Kings County'

Real estate is not for the faint of heart - in fact, home-buying has been known to reduce some of us sensitive types to sobbing heaps of jelly. But the deals at the heart of The King of Kings County, Whitney Terrell's fine novel, are enough to make even the most hardened land baron flinch.

Alton Acheson II has longed to make his mark in real estate. Sadly for his embarrassed son, Jack, Alton's heroes were all con men. When the government plans to put a highway through Kansas farmlands in the 1950s, Acheson sees his chance. He teams up with Prudential Bowen (who made his fortune turning pig farms into shopping malls), to bilk farmers out of their land.

But that's just Phase 1. Phase 2 involves giving African-Americans mortgages to buy homes in Kansas City's formerly all-white neighborhoods, sending the white occupants scurrying for the newly created suburbs. By the time Jack is grown, the city is a hollow shell of itself. The story is too complex to be labeled a liberal screed. The novel is foremost a coming-of-age tale, with Jack wrestling with his relationships with both his dad and Prudential's granddaughter, Geanie, who remains a lifelong preoccupation. Terrell's second novel is a rueful, but ultimately loving, portrait of both a man and a city.

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