Friday, July 24, 2009

Whitney Terrell

Whitney Terrell is the New Letters Writer-in-Residence at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His first novel, The Huntsman (Viking) was a New York Times notable book and was selected as a best book of 2001 by The Kansas City Star and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His second novel, The King of Kings County (Viking) won the William Rockhill Nelson award from The Kansas City Star and was selected as a best book of 2005 by the Christian Science Monitor. In 2006, he was named one of 20 “writers to watch” under 40 by members of the National Book Critics Circle.

His non-fiction has appeared in The New York Times, Details, The New York Observer, The Kansas City Star, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Recently, he embedded with the 22nd infantry in Baghdad, an experience he covered for the Washington Post Magazine.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Of late, I have been reading Updike, Updike, Updike. This is a jag that began with his death which spurred me, as I suspect it did many people, to go back and actually read his work again, rather than dealing with him as an idea, a “great author,” a brand name. I began with the third and best of the Rabbit books, Rabbit is Rich, and read back from there to Redux and finally to Run. I was shocked and abashed by how much he achieved in these books, how serious and consistent their purpose seemed, and how far they exceeded the achievement I’d granted them in my memory. The fault was all mine, not his. In the encomiums that followed Updike’s death, many spoke of his writing about sex, the titillating aspects of his work, as well as his majestic prose. But in the Rabbit books, he seems to me, more than any writer I can think of, the great American poet of death and loneliness. The novels, in the tone and sensation, recall Hopper paintings and in Rabbit, Run I imagine the down-market Chinese restaurant and the “Club Castanet” -- both places Rabbit visits with his mistress, Ruth -- as Pennsylvania equivalents of the café in Nighthawks. This is not the kind of comment that attracts readers, I suppose, and so perhaps it is best for Updike to be remembered as a sexy virtuoso. But it should be noted that his characters’ plentiful highpoints -- such as the moment where Rabbit claims to find God in a well-struck drive -- are brighter for this infinitely dark backdrop.

In a year where death is touching my personal life more than I would like, I was happy for his honesty. The Rabbit jag has led, of course, to a full-blown Updike review so that you can currently find, piled up under my bedside table, Self-Consciousness, Museums and Women, and his excellent collection of essays More Matter.
Visit Whitney Terrell's website to learn more about the author, his novels, and his non-fiction.

The Page 99 Test: The King of Kings County.

--Marshal Zeringue