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An ill wind roils American royalty

The King of America: A Novel; Samantha Gillison; Random House: 224 pp., $21.95

March 17, 2004|Carmela Ciuraru | Special to The Times

In her 1998 novel "The Undiscovered Country," Samantha Gillison explored a family's troubled transition from Massachusetts to remote New Guinea, which is where the author spent a few years of her own childhood. (She has described her time there as having "informed my perception of the world.") In her subtle, poetic second novel, Gillison revisits New Guinea, loosely basing her story on the 1961 disappearance of a Rockefeller scion.

"The King of America" tells a few stories, each of them unbearably sad: the desperate yearning of a son for his absent father; intense love for a woman who cannot return those affections; the adventure at sea gone horribly wrong. That the novel is framed around a protagonist of inconceivable wealth and privilege makes him no less sympathetic and his ending no less heartbreaking.

There are some biographical similarities between Gillison's latest protagonist, Stephen Hesse, and the late Michael Rockefeller too. Hesse attends Harvard and joins a scientific expedition to New Guinea a year after graduation. Hesse also has a keen interest in collecting tribal and primitive art. His tragic fate plays out the same way it did for Rockefeller: While sailing along the south coast of New Guinea at the start of the fierce monsoon season, Hesse's catamaran is overturned. Ignoring the pleas of his shipmates, he insists on swimming 12 miles back to shore for help. He jumps nude into the Arafura Sea and is never seen again. "All of him wanted life," Gillison writes. "But blackness came and released him."

It's clear from the novel's start that Hesse has felt bereft for much of his life; he has plenty of money and freedom but lacks a tether to any real sense of security and comfort. He is born into a family of oil millionaires, one that also owns hotels, museums, railways and vast amounts of land, yet his identity seems lost and muddled. At first, Stephen is an only child who stands to inherit hundreds of millions of dollars. After his father, Nicholas Hesse, divorces his mother and quickly remarries, Stephen becomes the oldest of five children who must eventually share the massive fortune.

To his children, Nicholas Hesse may be somewhat of a mystery, a towering, largely absent figure, but they are well aware of what he represents. "Even in their childish, half-knowing souls, [they] sensed the latent enormity of the wealth that surrounded him, as immense and unfathomable as the ocean. Their father was the source of life, of oil: the blood of America. Loving him was like loving the sun or wind."

Stephen worships his father; their relationship (or lack thereof) shapes all others in his life. He has a fraught relationship with his overbearing mother, Marguerite, with whom he lives on Manhattan's Park Avenue -- in the same posh building where his father and stepmother also live. Marguerite remains bitter over the divorce and Stephen finds himself having "absorbed his mother's unhappiness, her mannerisms, her stilled anger," traits he eventually comes to resent. A sensitive, lonely figure, Stephen spends his brief life trying to please the father he barely knows.

Stephen excels academically, even teaching himself the Greek alphabet at age 10, but he stumbles romantically. While visiting a friend on Fire Island, he falls in love for the first time with Sheila Egan, a painter eight years his elder who views him more as a kid brother than a lover.

There's a wonderful earnestness and innocence in Stephen, which is what makes him so compelling. He is hardly aware of how his family name arouses such a mix of resentment and awe in others. Even when his father agrees to underwrite a Harvard professor's academic trip to New Guinea, just so his son can go along for the study, Stephen doesn't quite grasp how this might affect his professor. He is determined to go on the trip, partly to collect native art for his father's museum, which he hopes might bring them closer together and make his father proud.

Stephen is just like any other college graduate seeking to expand his horizons; he believes that escaping to an exotic, isolated locale is just the way to do it: "The thought of it -- going into the true unknown, what he would learn, who he would become -- opened him. It was as though he'd been hiking and had stumbled across a view; he saw the immediate future for what it was, and saw that he could change it -- not just experience it."

What could have been a novel about another reckless, arrogant, rich kid who self-destructs isn't. Class is just an aspect that Gillison approaches in a way that is complex and nuanced. When Stephen vanishes, a newspaper headline blares, "The King of America Searches for His Crown Prince"; in the end, money and privilege can't save the heir, who dies naked and alone, swallowed up by the sea.

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