It's an auspicious thing to open a novel of the American Midwest with an invocation of the Missouri River, "somnolent and muscular, centuryless, churning on without the permission of man's belief." It calls up the raft-running boys of Twain, the heart of the heart of the country, the big, beating American dream.
Such is the opening of "The Huntsman," (Viking, $25.95, 384 pages), the first novel from Whitney Terrell, a story rooted firmly in the snarled environs of Kansas City, Mo., and the flat cornfields of Oklahoma, the complex bindings of our histories and the racial tensions of our time. As first novels go, "The Huntsman" aspires to be as big as they come.
It's from the Missouri that Stan Granger, a lonesome, awkward fisherman whose "days passed in bundles when he did not speak," pulls from the river the body of a young woman dressed for the country club. He cannot remember the first time he pulled a body from the river, the first time he watched his father before him, but this is different. He knows the woman, and he knows who might have put her there.
Clarissa Sayers is a federal judge's daughter, a debutante of pale-skinned beauty and startling frankness. Since she was a child, she's accompanied her father to his hunting club, the sole female among the reluctant old guard. It's at this camp she meets Booker Short, a young black ex-con jumping parole. Booker has taken up in a caretaker's shack and taken Stan's old job, at the duress of his grandfather's old army captain, Mercury Chapman, whom Booker has been raised to believe owes his family something for transgressions long since passed.
The story is rife with such subtle blackmails. Clarissa and Booker begin an affair with increasing visibility and design; she escorts him to society luncheons and benefit picnics, football games and maypole dances, places he's sure to come to the notice of her father, for reasons far darker than common rebelliousness. When Clarissa turns up dead, Booker is the easy target, but if "The Huntsman" is about anything, it's the two-sided nature of our secrets, our sins, and how what's easy, what's making our knees jerk, is almost always an incomplete version of the truth.
This is also a story about race, in all its ever-shifting nuance; blacks trapped by their blackness, whites by their whiteness, and the places where race gives power and discomfort no matter who has the upper hand. Terrell's Kansas City is still fraught with division, "the races having separated against all plan or reason after the laws that kept them apart were abolished, the customs and habits that had intertwined families for generations suddenly appearing unseemly to both sides, embarrassing." This embarrassment becomes a touchstone for these people, a debt owed to each other, and Terrell approaches it from all angles.
Generous, billowing and old-fashioned in style, "The Huntsman" achieves moments of real beauty. Terrell's language is never more evocative than when he's describing the nature of what's seen a woman's yellow pantsuit is "finchlike." There is an inherent wisdom to these lines, a sharp perception that sometimes gets away from him. The fact that "his close cropped white hair floated like the mark of some affliction above his muscled shoulders," brings no imaginable affliction to mind, and it's hard to trust, just yet, that Terrell might know of afflictions we don't.
But such over-reaching reveals ambition, not to fashion, but to true and timeless writing. It's clear the day will come when Terrell's voice owns all the size and power it currently claims.