In the early 1960s, cultural anthropology entered the last days of its discovery phase. Researchers from prestigious universities canoed into remote villages, bringing with them grand expectations of "primitive" cultures and introducing trappings of Western culture to the farthest corners of the globe. It was an exhilarating time for the field.
Into this world falls impressionable young Stephen Hesse, the exploring soul at the center of Samantha Gillison's new novel, The King of America. Stephen is an American prince, the only child of the failed first marriage of a famous businessman/politician. (The 1961 disappearance in New Guinea of billionaire heir Michael Rockefeller inspired Gillison's novel.) When his father remarries, Stephen sticks close to his mother, a devoted but unaffectionate woman who keeps him far from his father's lavish life and new family.
Still, Stephen's patrimony carries weight, and he attends the best private schools and moves in circles of influential young men. While visiting a buddy on Fire Island, he falls in love with Sheila, a fiercely independent artist who remains gently indifferent to his affections. Despite her attempts to dissuade him, Stephen summons the courage to propose. "Darling, no," she replies. "No, we aren't going to get married. But aren't you something for asking me."
Floundering and sure only of his passion for anthropology, Stephen asks his father to fund a Harvard professor's research trip to New Guinea, which ensures him a place on the team. Gillison seems in her element in uncharted jungles, among indigenous tribesmen and curious expats. (Born in Australia, the author lived in New Guinea as a child.) And it is abroad that Stephen first feels at home. "Wasn't it something," writes Gillison, "that he had to travel the farthest corners of the earth to find men who could see him."
Throughout his time in the South Pacific, Stephen struggles to define a role for himself. He is aware of the damage being done by missionaries and anthropologists, and knows intuitively that their work will "suck this place in and spew it out ugly and poor instead of beautiful and primeval." Despite his misgivings, Stephen's desire to impress his father leads him deeper into the forest, in search of the cannibalistic Asmat and artifacts for a museum display back in New York. Ultimately, the monsoons intrude upon his stubborn quest and jeopardize all that he has sought to achieve.
From the hugely popular 14th-century travelogues of Sir John Maundeville through the contemporary writing of Paul Theroux, a whole canon has grown up around the Westerner's search for the exotic. Gillison appropriates this subject with vigor and compassion. Her Stephen takes to heart the gravity of his actions, yet cannot resist the allure of the unknown. Just as Stephen cannot stop himself from traveling farther upriver into unexplored terrain, we cannot stop reading about his journey, despite the sense of foreboding that begins on page one and never lets up.