Sunday, September 25, 2011

The King of America by Samantha Gillison

This novel is inspired by the life of Michael Rockefeller, the millionaire’s son who vanished in 1960 while studying the customs and rituals of the Asmat tribe and collecting native art in Dutch New Guinea.

Stephen Hesse, is the firstborn son of one of the world’s richest men, Nicholas Hesse, and his working-class wife, Marguerite, the daughter of the charwoman who cleaned his rooms at university, born before she was replaced by a more suitably pedigreed blonde wife and a litter of fair-haired children more in keeping with Nicholas’s social standing and political ambitions which later win him the governorship of New York. Stephen grows up a shy, serious, bookish boy who in his loneliness and isolation immerses himself in history and art and spends his summer visits trying to win his father’s love and approval. As a senior at an elite boys’ school he experiences an attraction to the new Latin master that proves mutual when the two share a kiss during a walk on a rainy day. Whether the affair goes any further physically isn’t disclosed as this novel rarely ventures behind bedroom doors. A few years later, as a young man in college, we witness Stephen's first real romance with an older, rather unconventional woman, Sheila, he meets on Fire Island who has a passionate on again/off again affair with an artist boyfriend who lives in Paris six months of every year. But the relationship is doomed to failure when Sheila chooses the bohemian life she has over what Stephen and his father’s money can offer.

Bored and disenchanted, Stephen briefly considers dropping out of college to join the army, until he attends an anthropology lecture on ritual male violence and, using his father’s influence, worms his way onto an expedition to the lush tropical paradise of Dutch New Guinea where naked, painted and befeathered tribes still practice headhunting, cannibalism, and magical rites. His mission is to collect art for his father’s museum, The Hesse Museum For Primitive Art, and to also keep a written record of the expedition. When Stephen becomes captivated by the Asmat bisj poles, elaborately carved and painted totem poles made to honor their dead ancestors, he refuses to listen to common sense and wait until the monsoon season has passed, and thus the stage is set for tragedy with headlines blaring THE KING OF AMERICA SEARCHES FOR HIS CROWN PRINCE as helicopters fly overhead and dugout canoes and Navy ships patrol the water and volunteers beat through the bushes searching for Stephen or his body.

Those who know me or regularly read this blog know I have a fascination with missing persons cases, and the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller is one of what I call “the cases that haunt me,” so I really enjoyed this novel. Though I must stress it is a work of fiction loosely based on the real story and the author has taken numerous creative liberties in creating her cast of characters, I felt it gave me a better understanding of the young man at the center of that tragedy and the events surrounding his loss . There were times when I felt the novel was a tad cold, or dispassionate, when I thought a little more depth or detail would have served it better, but nonetheless I didn’t put it down until I reached the final page, and if I didn’t have so many books piled up waiting for me I would gladly read it again.

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