In the wave of praise that will soon greet Samantha Gillison's near-perfect novel, The King of America, much will be made of Gillison's debt to the story of Michael Rockefeller's life and disappearance. It's a debt Gillison freely acknowledges, both in the novel's back-matter and in conversation.
"I used a lot of the road posts of Michael Rockefeller's life," Gillison says during a phone call to her home about the new novel. Gillison and her husband, a book editor, and their six-year-old son live in Brooklyn Heights, not terribly far from Gillison's good friend and fellow-novelist Jhumpa Lahiri. In conversation Gillison is open, perceptive, enthusiastic and funny. "I sound like such a dingbat," she exclaims happily just after explaining that she chose ancient Greek, her major at Brown University, because she found the material "really really cool."
About Michael Rockefeller, Gillison is also enthusiastic and perceptive. "He was a really interesting guy, a visionary in terms of his ambition and the art he wanted to collect and why he wanted to collect it," she says. "I really do admire him. Of course in a person like him there can also be an arrogance, a sense of I am God-like.' "
Michael Rockefeller, the son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and a member of one of the wealthiest families in America, disappeared in the Arafura Sea off the coast of New Guinea in 1961 at the age of 22. The young Rockefeller was part of an anthropological expedition doing field work among the tribal societies of New Guinea. He was also collecting local artwork, particularly Bisj poles, elaborately carved poles that had been banned by the governing Dutch and Indonesian authorities because the carvings were associated with headhunting and ritual cannibalism.
Rockefeller's disappearance set off an intensive and heartbreaking search. That he was never found has fueled rumors and "confessions" ever since. Not long ago, several aging New Guineans claimed to have killed and eaten him. Gillison does not believe them. "There was certainly headhunting and cannibalism going on when Michael Rockefeller was in New Guinea. But I have been on the sea where he was, and it is a treacherous sea. He was there right at monsoon season. He was a wonderful swimmer, but he had been out all night without food or water. He wasn't jumping in on a clear Maine morning to swim across the bay after breakfast. It would have been shocking if he'd made it to shore. It's much more likely that he drowned or was eaten by a shark."
Gillsion herself was moved by the Rockefeller story as a child living in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s. "I still think it's one of the saddest stories I've ever heard," she says in comments at the end of the book. From the age of six to eight, Gillison lived in a remote New Guinea village while her mother did field work for a doctorate in anthropology and her father worked as a wildlife photographer.
"We were very far from any kind of town, and the only people who spoke English were my parents," Gillison recalls. "I didn't spend much time with them, so by the time I left I was arguably better at speaking the local language than English. I couldn't really read or write until I was about eight-and-a-half. It was a beautiful, amazing place to be, and I really liked the people there. The experience has given me a weird, split idea about home, people, life. Here things seem very much constructed; I see the materiality of things. Sometimes I feel alienated from this view. Sometimes my childhood can come flying back in my face and it can be very hard to negotiate."
Perhaps it is this acute sense of dislocation that is the source of Gillison's beautiful use of language, her extraordinary ability to evoke a place and a people, and her wide-ranging empathy for people unlike herself. Gillison, the author of an acclaimed collection of stories, The Undiscovered Country, and a recipient of the prestigious Whiting prize, first tried to write a nonfiction account of Rockefeller. "I spent almost a year researching and writing it, and it was just bad. Really heavy and really dull. It read like a book report." Writer Peter Carey, who was working his own magnificent transformation of fact into fiction (True History of the Kelly Gang), suggested she turn the book into a novel. Thus Michael Rockefeller transmorgified into the character Stephen Hesse, son of Governor Nicholas Hesse and his first wife Marguerite. And The King of America became an exceptional work of fiction.
Given the history of its development, it is tempting to read The King of America as a roman à clef, a slightly altered biography that uses imagination to fill the gaps in the historical record. But that approach ignores the daring brilliance of Gillison's storytelling, and it does not explain the novel's elemental emotional power. Sure, the outline of this tale is provided by Rockefeller, but the substance, the living details – the family structure, the personal conflicts, the love interests – are all Gillison's invention. Gillison's story is about Stephen Hesse – with his loneliness, his longing to know his distant father, his desire to escape his overbearing mother, his impulsiveness and appetite for life, his unexpected sense of belonging among the Asmat villagers – chasing after his own sad fate. In fact, The King of America is a novel more deeply rooted in mythology than biography.
"One of my models for the character of Marguerite was Medea, who was brought far away from her homeland to be the queen in a strange land and then dumped for someone more suitable' to be her husband's queen," Gillison says, illustrating how her enthusiasm for classical literature works itself into her fiction. "I have Stephen reading Medea at boarding school because I couldn't help myself (I was re-reading that play a lot while I was writing) and also because it was when I first read Medea in Greek that I fell in love with ancient Greek literature." Gillison adds that her love of ancient Greek, particularly Homer, has something to do with similarities between "the way people live in Homer and the way people lived in New Guinea when I was growing up. Everything from fires to the art of war, it all felt very familiar to me."
Luckily, a reader need not be a classics scholar to be greatly moved by the story of Stephen Hesse. Gillison more than succeeds in her wish for "a reader of my work to feel very intimate with my characters – to feel their flaws and sensual awareness and excitement." She does so with remarkable economy – the book is just over 200 pages long – and with prose that is beautiful and clear and so reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald that it is a shock to hear Gillison say, "Reading F. Scott Fitzgerald is the reason I wanted to start writing."
Near the end of our conversation, Gillison talks about her admiration for Michael Rockefeller's openness to a culture very different from his own. "I wanted Stephen Hesse to have a similar openness and connection to the world. I wanted him to have a sense that he was part of something bigger than himself, rather than being someone looking down on someone else," Gillison says. "I do think humans can transcend fear and open themselves up to understanding other people. It's what makes you realize how big life is. It can be so thrilling. You have this short time, but life is so big, it's so wide, it's such a huge experience."
To borrow Gillison's words, The King of America is big and wide, and it is also thrilling.
Alden Mudge, a juror for the California Book Awards and the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize, writes from Oakland.