Friday, September 30, 2011

Whitney Terrell on Race, Incest and Murder in "The Huntsman"

By Dylan Foley

At the beginning of Whitney Terrell's "The Huntsman," a slain white socialite named Clarissa Sayers is pulled out of the Missouri River a few miles outside of Kansas City. Her African-American boyfriend becomes the prime murder suspect.

Terrell takes the very unsettling American subjects of race and class, and develops a brooding, beautiful novel about what divides black and white America. "The Huntsman" is a rich, literary work that examines the wounds of racism and questions the meaning of memory and history.

"People in Kansas City live stratified lives, where most whites inhabit a world where the African-American population does not intrude," said Terrell in an interview from his Kansas City, Mo., home that is three blocks from Troost Avenue, the de facto racial divider of the city.

Terrell's book about race in Kansas City allows the reader to extend this examination to the rest of the United States. "Any particular place can be universal if you know about it well and write about it well," he said. "For me, Kansas City is that place."

The central character of "The Huntsman" is Booker Short, an African-American ex-con from Oklahoma farm country who jumps his parole to come to Kansas City, looking for Mercury Chapman, the white officer who commanded his grandfather's unit during World War II. The grandfather had saved Chapman's life in Europe, and Booker holds him to that debt. Chapman sets Booker up as the groundskeeper at a rural hunting club patronized by Kansas City's white elite. Booker soon becomes involved with the wild daughter of Thornton Sayers, a powerful federal judge.

Booker comes to Kansas City to find out the truth behind Chapman's involvement in the wartime hanging in France of a black soldier for rape. Terrell takes the reader on a 150-page flashback of Booker's farm life in Oklahoma under the thumbs of his stern grandfather, Chapman's childhood memory of Kansas City and both older men's memories of what really happened during the war.

Clarissa initially not victim

In Booker's train-hopping escape to Kansas City, Terrell shows hints of Faulkner's "Wild Palms": "The train seemed to voyage not so much through physical counties as through partitions in time. (Booker) woke from dozing to see a man in a red riding jacket, posting through the trees." Terrell switches gears, writing stark images of Booker's interest in Clarissa: "She wore an undershirt and suspenders, like a man, and he could see under the ruststained fabric the precise curve of her breasts."

"Booker developed as a necessity of plot," said Terrell. "It was originally Chapman's body that was going to be found in the river. Then I changed it to the girl. I needed a character to break the membranes of the city, to force the white community to deal with the black community. Booker is that instigator.

"The "huntsman' in the novel is different people at different times - it is a person coming to make you tell your secrets," Terrell said. "Booker is hunting for the truth over what happened during the war, while Clarissa knows other secrets. They are outsiders, provoking the establishment."

Terrell grew up in the wealthy white community of Kansas City. "I went to the private schools, and lived a very privileged life," said Terrell. "I used to hunt with my grandfather in a hunting club outside the city, similar to the one in my book. We would drive down Highway 71, that would take us through the black neighborhood."

Terrell's odyssey as a writer took him away from Kansas City, first to college at Princeton, then Paris, New York and Brazil. "When I left Kansas City, I thought it was the most boring place," said Terrell. "I thought I had to have adventures to be a writer."

It was at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he worked with the African-American writer James McPherson, that Terrell's attitudes toward Kansas City changed. "James talked a lot about race and class in society and literature," said Terrell. "I realized that everything that I wanted to write about was in Kansas City." After 10 years away, Terrell moved back home in 1996 and now teaches at a local college.

"The Huntsman" is set in 1993, when the Missouri River flooded its banks. The river becomes a character in the novel, its surging waters spitting up dead bodies, but at the same time providing a possible means of escape.

Terrell draws Booker with full-bodied strokes. The reader watches him evolve in the novel from an earnest and lonely farmboy to a decisive, hard man. "Booker does have some personal bitterness to the white society," said Terrell.

Book marketed as mystery

Judge Sayers in Terrell's hands becomes a dangerous man, but is hardly a cartoon villain. "Though Sayers does some inhumane things, I was writing from his point of view," said Terrell. "I had to be an advocate of that point of view."

For some inexplicable reason, Viking has marketed The Huntsman as a mystery. Though the novel has tinges of both mystery and thriller to it, the book is more concerned with digging into painful issues like race than providing a bloody whodunit to the reader. "My goal was to write about history and memory," said Terrell, "and how the blacks and whites viewed things differently."

In the novel, Chapman fondly remembers Eve, a black housekeeper who saved him from indifferent parents: "He remembered her scent's mixture of wet wool and chives cut from the garden, more clearly than he did the details of his own mother." Her grandson Clyde, now a pillar in the black community, remembers Chapman and other whites as using his family. By examining the fractured race relations of Kansas City, Terrell forces readers to look at the painful racial histories of their own hometowns.

Terrell's next book is about Kansas City and the municipal corruption that built its freeways. Like William Kennedy and his Albany novels, Terrell hopes to mine the murky depths of Kansas City, despite the publishing industry's unease about books on race. "The issue of race and issues of land have destroyed this city and many American cities," said Terrell. "To write well about this city, you have to write about both blacks and whites. You're going to have to write across racial lines."

Originally published in The Denver Post on November 18, 2001

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