Review

The King of America

by Samantha Gillison



Samantha Gillison's second novel, THE KING OF AMERICA, begins with
a watery death. An American art collector named Stephen Hesse and
his crew are floating on a makeshift catamaran in the Arafura Sea
in New Guinea when a monsoon topples the boat. After hours of
clinging to the hull, Stephen tries to swim the twenty miles to
shore and is never seen again.

This introduction to the novel and its headstrong main character is
also its conclusion, as Gillison, who spent much of her childhood
in New Guinea, uses this tragic event as a spring board into
Stephen's life. After his death, she travels backwards in time to
Stephen's birth and childhood and follows him through college, an
affair with an older woman named Sheila, and his anthropological
and art collecting trips to New Guinea. The novel ends, not
surprisingly, with Stephen in the rough waters of the Arafura, but
what comes in between is both intriguing and muddled.

Stephen's disappearance is no small matter. When his father,
Nicholas Hesse, travels to New Guinea to try to find him, newspaper
headlines around the world read, "THE KING OF AMERICA SEARCHES FOR
HIS CROWN PRINCE." The Hesse name is famous, and Nicholas heads an
empire of oil wells, mines, real estate, hotels, railroads and
museums whose incredible fortune defines the Hesse men: "Because
Nicholas Hesse owned the material world, it seemed that he was the
material world, the source of life, of oil: the blood of
America."

The Hesse family is, in fact, a fictional counterpart to the
Rockefellers, and THE KING OF AMERICA is a roman รก clef about
Michael Rockefeller, who similarly disappeared in New Guinea,
rumored to have fallen victim to headhunting cannibals. Just as
Susan Choi's masterful AMERICAN WOMAN did for another American
scion, Patty Hearst, Gillison's aim is to trace Michael's path
through the country and to plumb his legend for deeper
meanings.

Complex class issues --- centered on the lives of the incredibly
wealthy and how they relate to other people --- resound throughout
the novel, and Gillison explores them patiently and intelligently.
Stephen is seemingly blessed with an enviable birthright, but in
fact "his money, his name, his family were such a dark curse." With
a widespread reputation for having limitless wealth, he never has
to strive for anything but never achieves anything either. "Fate
had dropped him on a wall between two lives," that of the
gentleman-scholar and that of the scion; "he could see both but
could not fully enter either one of them."

This dilemma, which drives Stephen to New Guinea, "the last,
disappearing stretches of the wild," makes for an intriguing story
but not an entirely successful novel. In jumping back and forth in
time and between points of view, Gillison often jumbles the events
and the characters and strains the organization, as if she had
written the story in strict chronological order, then re-sequenced
it to create more drama. The unfortunate result is a novel that
lacks transitions between its chapters and still seems to be
defining itself even as it reaches its conclusion again.

Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on January 22, 2011

The King of America
by Samantha Gillison

  • Publication Date: March 2, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0375508198
  • ISBN-13: 9780375508196