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The King of Americaby Samantha Gillison
A slender yet well-rounded story of a young man born into great wealth. Tragically, however, he cannot come to terms with his family. His need to commit to something larger than his own life leads him, with a team of anthropologists, to Netherlands New Guinea to explore the possibility of acquiring crafts for his father's museum.
Synopses & Reviews
The King of America traces 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 America moves 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 America is an exceptional feat of storytelling.
"Gillison skips nimbly through time and space to create a moving portrait of an intellectual, enthusiastic young man....
"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....[A] supremely riveting story..." Donna Seaman, Booklist
"This novel has beautiful passages describing the natural splendor of Netherlands New Guinea and fascinating descriptions of its people and their complex art. However...the characters fail to come to life." Library Journal
"In this taut, tragic, exquisitely written book, a young American journeys to a distant world which shelters him from the barbarous gentility of home. An engrossing meditation on privilege and its discontents, The King of America is a magnificent achievement." Jhumpa Lahiri, author of The Namesake
"Tropical heat ripples off these pages: Samantha Gillison depicts New Guinea and its indigenous people in lush, rare, passionate language. She sympathetically animates American characters no less exotic, including a troubled young anthropologist and his oil-rich family. The King of America takes us on a stirring journey to a distant land — and whose exploration leads us to the heart of human folly." Ken Kalfus, author of The Commissariat of Enlightenment
"In this extraordinarly beautiful and atmospheric novel, Samantha Gillison once again displays her tremendous gifts for characterising both people and places. The King of America is an utterly absorbing portrait of both." Margot Livesey, author of Eva Moves the Furniture
"From its compelling opening to its unexpected, radiantly beautiful final scenes, this is an extraordinary novel." Andrea Barrett, National Book Award-winning author of Ship Fever
About the Author
Samantha Gillison is the author of The Undiscovered Country, which won a Whiting Fiction Award and was nominated for the Los Angeles Times/Art Seidenbaum First Fiction Award. She received a Guggenheim fellowship to complete The King of America. Gillison lives in New York City.
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