Cover image for The king of America : a novel
The king of America : a novel
Gillison, Samantha.
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First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [2004]

Physical Description:
213 pages : 1 map ; 22 cm
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The King of Americatraces the short, brilliant life of Stephen Hesse, firstborn son of one of America's wealthiest, most powerful men--yet Stephen's distinguished paternal lineage and the great privilege it has conferred on him are at odds with the working-class background of his mother. Ultimately, a scandalous divorce and the replacement of the somber, dark-eyed mother and child with a new family more becoming to Stephen's father's political ambition leave the young man an outsider. The sole focus of his abandoned mother, Stephen Hesse grows up lonesome and restless. At Harvard, recovering from a failed love affair, Stephen falls under the sway of a charismatic anthropology professor and, at last, feels a sense of direction and identity. As a scholar, writer, and art collector for his father's museum, Stephen accompanies his mentor to the impossibly strange and distant world of Netherlands New Guinea, where a Neolithic culture, still practicing its ancient rites of head-hunting, thrives in its last moments before modernity arrives. There Stephen discovers the Asmat bisj poles--terrifying, glorious, towering pieces of carved woodwork honoring tribal ancestors--which he hopes will secure his professional standing and guarantee him a lasting place in his father's esteem. But his hardheaded insistence on securing the art before the onset of the monsoon season has tragic consequences. Loosely based on the mysterious 1961 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller,The King of Americamoves seamlessly from the bastions of East Coast privilege to the tropical lushness of New Guinea. Samantha Gillison writes with the powers of observation of a naturalist and the assurance of a born novelist. Part love story, part adventure yarn, part family tragedy,The King of Americais an exceptional feat of storytelling.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Gillison is a quietly commanding writer who has some extremely provocative and important things to say about wealth, indigenous cultures, and the domination of Western civilization. These concerns fueled her impressive debut, The Undiscovered Country (1998), and underlie this psychologically and culturally astute fictionalization of the sad fate of Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared in 1961 off the coast of Papua New Guinea, where he was collecting native art. Gillison's evocation of place is sensual and penetrating, and her imagining of the heart and mind of her hero, Stephen Hesse, is masterful. The eldest son of a man so rich and powerful he is America's virtual king, and the only child of the big man's rejected first wife, Stephen is materially rich, emotionally impoverished, and at perpetual loose ends. Athletic, artistic, and solitary, he seeks love with an older woman who feels nothing for him and spiritual revelation in a dangerous and distant land. Even in the wilds of New Guinea his pseudoroyalty condemns him to the bleak loneliness reserved for those who are resented by all. Gillison's supremely riveting story explores the jungle of the psyche, cultural collisions, and the dark curse of an unholy inheritance. --Donna Seaman Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Like her acclaimed 1998 debut, The Undiscovered Country, Gillison's second novel is set in New Guinea (where she lived in the early 1970s) and revolves around an introspective only child of bitterly estranged parents. Stephen Hesse-loosely modeled on Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared 40 years ago in then Dutch New Guinea while collecting primitive art for his father's collection-is an excruciatingly lonely, earnest kid struggling to develop an identity under the crushing weight of his father's millions. Gillison skips nimbly through time and space to create a moving portrait of an intellectual, enthusiastic young man who's finding that all his glittering Hesse gold (there's so much of it that even the author sometimes seems to be in its thrall) is as much a curse as a blessing. Aspiring anthropologist Stephen eventually finagles his way onto a Harvard research team bound for New Guinea, and both he and the novel spring fully to life with the advent of dense, teeming coastlines and vertiginous mountain interiors. When compared to the richness of New Guinea's unbridled nature and awesome tribal art, Stephen's previous life feels flat and lifeless. His boredom as a young man in the U.S. occasionally infects the writing itself, but Gillison redeems herself in the jungle: in her loving hands, the lush landscapes throb with color and intensity. By the time Stephen finally disappears, as the reader knows he will, on an ill-advised art-buying mission among head-hunting tribes, one can't help mourning the loss of whatever this awakening might have spurred him to become. 6-city author tour. (Mar. 9) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Uncertain of his sexuality and enthralled by the writing of anthropologist Claude L?vi-Strauss, Stephen Hesse finds meaning in a college teacher's plans for an expedition to New Guinea. Stephen's father, the vastly wealthy governor of New York, agrees to finance the expedition. As a participant, Stephen is responsible for collecting the native art. Headstrong and hoping to amass a collection that will impress his father, Stephen disregards warnings of an impending monsoon. When his vessel is swamped, he ignores the caution of his companion and thus vanishes while attempting to swim to shore. This novel has beautiful passages describing the natural splendor of Netherlands New Guinea and fascinating descriptions of its people and their complex art. However, with the exception of a beautiful older woman with whom Stephen has a brief romance, the characters fail to come to life. Although Gillison (The Undiscovered Country) disclaims any resemblance to real people, many readers will be hard-pressed not to think of the tragic disappearance of young Michael Rockefeller, whose story is insufficiently fictionalized here. Buy where anthropology studies include fiction. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/03.]-Judith Kicinski, Sarah Lawrence Coll. Lib., Bronxville, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 1 The Arafura Sea At the end of november the monsoon bursts over the southern coast of Irian Jaya, pounding the villages of thatch-roof huts that sit along the Asmat River. Brackish, cloudy streams that run like veins through the salt swamps swell and then, pulled by the tide, gush muddy, debris-filled water into the shallow Arafura Sea. The air, full of rain, becomes heavy with an earthy, briny smell of rotting shrimp and salt water. The Arafura is a wide, warm sea that stretches from the southern shore of Irian Jaya down to northern Australia. To its west lie the islands of Indonesia; to the east, across the endless open Pacific, sit Fiji and the New Hebrides. And right before the monsoon hits, its waves become lead-colored, silty, bobbing with branches and tangled roots and the twisted leaves of nipa palms. Flying south from the coast in a low plane, the sea spreads out beneath you, murky, until suddenly, ten miles out from land, the water becomes clear; its rippled sandy bottom glows bluish green in the equatorial sun. And far away from shore the clear water teems with silvery clouds of mackerel, darting eels, and schools of nurse sharks that flicker blue and gray as they make for open ocean. In November, as the monsoon hovers, the Asmat villagers never travel out that far. They stay close to the coast, paddling long dugout canoes with carved heads guarding their prows. But the American art collector had been in a hurry, eager to get to Agats ahead of the rains: he still hoped to get back to the States for Christmas. They had gone too far from the shore, Stephen Hesse and the Dutch anthropologist Erich Van Gropius and their two Asmat guides, in the lashed-together catamaran with its tin roof and little outboard motor put-putting in the choppy waves. It was only early afternoon: the fat, too-close sun still sat high, bleeding haze through the rainy-season clouds. The waves were full of the coming monsoon's violence; one smashed into the other. A huge wave hit the catamaran and swamped the motor. The four men, still sitting in the boat, drifted seaward. Everything as it happened was a slowed-down annoyance; they became waterlogged and clumsy, almost comical, as mishap piled upon mishap. Even Luke and Roman, the Asmat guides, were restless in the sudden motorless quiet of the waves. They seemed unreal to Stephen, like two figures from a silent movie, their facial expressions exaggerated, their request for permission to swim to shore uttered in a different universe. Stephen was far away, in his head, writing everything as it happened. He was finishing the letter to his father, writing in his journal, picking out details to put down later: the taste of the salty, heavy sea, the gray air, the sight of the two Asmat men diving into the tawny waves and swimming away from the swamped catamaran, the sun moving ever lower in the tropical sky, descending into the swollen clouds. The waves were rougher now; a canvas duffel bag full of notes and film came untied and floated around the left canoe. And still Stephen Hesse was wandering through the letter to his father, trying to explain the odd, inevitable feeling that had taken hold of him. At dusk, another wave hit and the tied-together canoes turned over. Their luggage floated away and then slowly, regretfully, sank into the Arafura. Stephen and Van Gropius clambered up out of the water, slipping and grabbing the slick wood backs of the upside-down catamaran. The two men said almost nothing to each other, following physical movement only with physical movement, fighting the sea. They reached under water and broke off pieces of wood from the catamaran's wall and tried to paddle, but the current was too strong. They gave up and straddled the upside-down canoes. It rained all night, the low clouds dripping, covering them in a soft, salty mist as they drifted south and west, toward open ocean. A half-moon glowed. The two men were quiet through the night, awake, wet and cold, listening to the small rain on the waves, the canoes slapping the water. At dawn the shore was a wavering brown line on a distant horizon. "I think I can make it," Hesse said. "Don't," Van Gropius said, shaking his head. "Stay with me. Just wait." Van Gropius's dark hair was wet and flat against his skull; his mustache hung down over his upper lip. He looked sorry and frightened, heavy, like a walrus. He glanced away from Stephen at the empty Arafura. "There are boats coming still, you know. We will get picked up." "I think I can make it," the young American said. "You don't know the swimmer I am." He smiled over Van Gropius's head at the day starting to break, at the pink sky. He took off his pants and shoes, peeled off his cold, wet shirt, his singlet and underwear. He emptied their two petrol tins, spilling the now-useless chemical into the seawater. He tied the empty containers to his waist with his belt, as floats. "Well," he said. "I go." and then he was in the arafura, swimming and swimming. He had stopped writing the letter. Now he was only the motion of his arms and legs, the warm, fishy-tasting water. A fragment of a poem fluttered through him. In Freiburg station, wai.ting for a train, I saw a Bishop with Puce gloves go by. He swam straight and strong, and felt his heart pumping. A school of pilot fish light as a cloud of butterflies swarmed him, brushed against his face and arms, his thighs. He felt the rain start up, splashing him through the waves. An image of Maine beset him: walking down to the water through the trees behind the house, the wind nudging the branches of an old birch. Squinting into the northern sunlight. Lobster boats on the bay, the hum of a motor on the water, the gulls calling, screeching, complaining, as he picked through seaweed-covered rocks at low tide, his red tin bucket in hand, gathering mussels for his mother. Plopping the barnacle-covered creatures into his bucket of cool seawater, watching baby starfish drift in the shallow tide. A gray nurse shark, aggressive, dumb, brushed up against Stephen's belly, jolting him from memory. She swam away slowly, uninterested. The waves had become gradually, rhythmically rougher, harder to get through. At that moment an awful coldness rushed through him, like death. He had a vision of himself, absurdly small, headstrong, flailing through an infinite ocean. The effort of swimming, the fear, the night with Van Gropius wet and cold in the Arafura, released an ache of loneliness inside him. He could feel it in his blood, making him cold. He could feel it in the seawater. He realized then just how much he missed Sheila, how he carried it with him. He had a flash of her: green-gold eyes, skin that tasted like sunlight. Ah, Sheila, he thought. Sheila, my sweetheart. The two petrol tins bobbing from his waist were a drag, were only weight now. He untied his belt and watched them float away. He opened his mouth and salty rain dripped onto his tongue. He felt better without the tins. He looked through the hazy morning at the mangrove trees lining the shore in the distance. The only thing was to keep moving, to keep swimming. He cleared everything from his mind except the feel of the sea on his body, the taste of it in his mouth, the ceaseless rain, the slight warmth of the early sun, the motion of his arms and legs cutting through the choppy, coastal waves. Van Gropius could no longer see him. Chapter 2 The Starry Night Stephen Hesse and his mother lived at 1062 Park Avenue during the school year, and in the summers they traveled up to Maine. They followed Stephen's father, Nicholas Hesse, and his new family, shadowing him and his second wife, their brood of fair-haired children and servants, as they migrated north up the Atlantic coast in the warm weather and then south again when the blueberry fields on Mount Desert Island turned violent fire-colors: brilliant orange, red, maroon, yellow. In the six years after Nicholas Hesse remarried, Stephen went from being the only child of a man worth more than $270 million to being the oldest of five children who would one day share that amount. When their marriage broke apart in 1939, a phalanx of Hesse lawyers gave Nicholas's first wife the following: their son, Stephen, the immense apartment at 1062 Park Avenue, a cut-stone sun-filled cottage in the Hesse compound on Mount Desert and money. Marguerite would live off the interest of a fortune that Stephen would come into on his majority. After that, if she hadn't remarried, she would receive an equivalent allowance from the Hesse family trust. The lawyers took care of Marguerite; no matter what, she would live out her life on a rich woman's income, although she had no wealth of her own and the baby, Stephen, owned the apartment in New York and the cottage in Maine. nicholas hesse fell in love with stephen's mother when he was studying in England. Marguerite O'Keefe was the daughter of the woman who cleaned his rooms at Cambridge. The charwoman's daughter. Black curls framing eyes of the darkest brown. She was a short, plump woman, with wide hips and a full mouth, who read serious books. When Nicholas first met her, she only wanted to talk about T. S. Eliot. Marguerite brought tomato-and-cheddar sandwiches on thick slices of black bread and a bottle of red wine wrapped in newspaper and read aloud Rupert Brooke's poetry while Nicholas punted the two of them along the river Cam, the sunlight green, the warm air full of the muddy river through a slow, English summer day. These I have loved: white plates and cups, clean gleaming, ringed with blue lines; and feathery, fairy dust. The deep, musky smell of her, the soft hair in her armpits, her menstrual blood on his fingertips, seeped into him. Nicholas sat in his room reading Pater and Nietzsche, and his mind floated through her. Marguerite was silent, her intent brown eyes full of life, the stillness of her manner hiding the rush, the beating warmth of her. It was as though he were only his animal self with Marguerite, responding without willing it to the smell of her, to her full pink-lipstick-covered lips. Yes, she was a fortune hunter. She and her mother were a team. They had set their net wide for him, quiet, homesick American that he was. Nicholas was handsome in his way, fine blond hair already thinning, serious green eyes smiling above a square face and a muscular German peasant's body beneath his clothes. And everything his father thundered at him in endless cables, and then in person in London, Nicholas knew the first moment he saw Marguerite standing outside Peter House in her sky blue jumper, her white stockings, the matching blue beret pulled down over her black curls. In the earliest days of their romance he had sat at his desk while her mother cleaned his rooms. Mrs. O'Keefe swept, dragged a rag across the windowpanes, stripped the bed linen, emptied his rubbish bin of fingernail parings and crumpled-up papers. Marguerite was a fortune hunter. He saw her so clearly, and himself, too, falling into her like Alice down the rabbit hole. But, weirdly, it made him want her more; for the first and only time in his life he stood opposed to his father. He saw all of Marguerite as though he were her, as though he wore her skin. They got married in the Registry Office in London and sailed back to New York. His father had pressured him relentlessly to come home, fretting in endless cables about Chamberlain; about the war that loomed over England; about his son, with his German last name, so far from home. when nicholas finally left marguerite, he felt like a man surfacing from the bottom of the ocean. When they divorced, Stephen was still a baby, not even two years old. Dark like his mother, with her same impossibly pure velvet brown eyes full of loneliness, full of feeling. Nicholas couldn't be married to Marguerite: he shouldn't have married Marguerite. But he had. She was too foreign; she didn't even seem English to Nicholas's parents or their friends. No one knew what to make of Nicholas's marriage to a servant's child-the whole thing was as strange and scandalous as if he had married an Italian peasant while on holiday in Rome. Marguerite was always quiet, sitting silent through tea parties in her honor, taciturn through formal dinners. No. He was to be king and she could not be queen. But he had held on to his first marriage until the last moment, knowing that he would have to push her away, but lost in her smell, in the warmth between her legs. And in the end, Nicholas Hesse couldn't move far from his first wife and son: he bought another apartment in 1062 Park Avenue, in the opposite tower, which used a separate elevator. Even if he couldn't see her, he wanted her and the baby close by. Less than a year after his divorce, Nicholas married Kiki Theale, a woman he should have been married to from the beginning. A blond and tall woman, a Texas lawyer's daughter, clever, light of heart, a golfer. Nicholas wanted to have Stephen with him and Kiki on the weekends, but when his lawyers brought up the idea to Marguerite, she exploded in a primitive rage. She would, she told them, kill her baby before she'd let that woman near it. in the morning, the doormen at 1062 park avenue watched as first one and then the second Hesse wife strode across the black marble lobby. One blond and thin, full of movement, always pregnant, bulging with life, almost dancing, her long legs striding rhythmically, a fluffy mink hat framing her narrow, pretty face. It was as though she were drinking her life; her beauty, her wealth. It was her moment. And the other, the first wife, slow, alone, or with her quiet, serious son, her wide, dark eyes absorbing every movement, every shadow, her pale skin, her black curls, turning gray, pulled back from her grave, un-made-up face in a knot. Like an owl, cruising past them, staring, blinking, full of contained violence. "Good morning, Mrs. Hesse," the doormen murmured as she nodded and walked out of the heavy brass-inlaid doors, clutching her son's hand, ducking into their waiting car. Stephen absorbed his mother's unhappiness, her mannerisms, her stilled anger, until they were so alike that they were a comic sight to the doormen at 1062. As far as they could see, the boy had nothing of his father about him. He had inherited his mother's Black Irish coloring, her thick-boned frame and heavy, fleshy legs. Excerpted from The King of America by Samantha Gillison All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.