Stephen Hesse, fresh out of Harvard, seems bound for a life of privilege: young, handsome, and almost immeasurably wealthy, he is the son of New York governor Nicholas Hesse. But Stephen’s idealized, charismatic father, now remarried, remains a well-intentioned stranger, and the cost to his son has been profound. In her first novel, The King of America, Samantha Gillison follows Stephen’s quest to recapture his father’s love. It is a journey that will take him through two failed love affairs and deep into the jungles of New Guinea, where, collecting artifacts for his father’s Hesse Museum for Primitive Art, Stephen meets with tragedy.
The novel is based on the story of Michael Rockefeller, the twenty-two-year-old son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller who disappeared on an anthropological expedition to New Guinea in 1961. Gillison sets up her tale with a cliff-hanger: the first, tense chapter finds Stephen Hesse, along with a Dutch anthropologist, adrift on an overturned catamaran in the Arafura Sea, off the New Guinea coast. They’ve made a fateful miscalculation, lingering into the monsoon season, and storms have swamped their vessel, washing it hopelessly offshore. Even in these dire circumstances, Stephen is thinking of his father, composing a final letter in his mind, “trying,” Gillison writes, “to explain the odd, inevitable feeling that had taken hold of him.” He decides to swim for shore and almost immediately vanishes among the waves.
Stephen’s dive becomes a lens through which we read his life in flashback. He is raised by his mother in a posh Park Avenue apartment. Although his father lives nearby—in the same building, along with his second wife and their four children—Stephen seldom sees him. Lonely, the boy embarks on a homosexual love affair with his prep school Latin teacher and then another affair with an older woman who evades him, even when he tries to bribe her with his millions. At Harvard, spurred on by his father’s interest in native art and artifacts, Stephen tries unsuccessfully to join an expedition to New Guinea led by an expert on ritual male violence. Stephen endures one rejection after another, multiplying the original hurt.
Finally, with his father’s help (in the form of a gift to Harvard), Stephen earns a spot on a New Guinea expedition. Once there, he collects bisj—tall, complex wooden totem poles, each representing a newly dead soul—for his father’s museum. Although Stephen imagines himself a scientist, he acquires these objects obsessively, without regard to their anthropological or aesthetic value.
The bisj, he is told, stem from an Asmat myth: when Fumeripitj, the first man, was drowned in a swamped canoe, a flock of magical birds revived him. Lonely, he carved companions out of wood and breathed life into them. Just as Fumeripitj breathed life into his wooden totems, Stephen tries to revive his moribund relationship with his father, to become more than a wealthy buyer of things and people. But Fumeripitj’s fate is also Stephen’s, and this is the strange inevitability he feels while clinging to the catamaran in the seconds before his death: he is the solitary first man.
The King of America is quickly paced and readable; if it has a flaw, it is in the final chapter, “A Pieta,” in which Stephen’s drowned soul returns, like the reborn Fumeripitj, to New York City to visit his surviving friends and relatives. It’s a touch that feels overdone in what is an otherwise tightly woven, well-constructed narrative meditation on family, money, myth, and loss.
Lori Baker is a BAM contributing editor.