Friday, March 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Rich prose flavors tale of ill-fated youth

Special to The Seattle Times

Author Appearance

Samantha Gillison will read from "The King of America," 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or ).
"The King of America" by Samantha Gillison (Random House, $21.95) is a short, smart, pungent book, but of the three it's mostly pungent. It's like one of those incredibly rich chocolate tortes served at a high-end restaurant on a too-large white plate with a sprig of mint. One bite and you almost get a headache. You think: "Wow." Then you think: "Isn't this too rich? Shouldn't they cut back a bit?"

It's a sensory overload. "She cooked him thick, smoky-tasting bacon," Gillison writes, in a typical example of her evocative prose, "pancakes full of bananas and soft walnuts, chicory coffee sweet and rich with canned milk." Nothing is ever ordinary-tasting. At one point Gillison writes, "Every piece of meat was tender and rich-tasting in her mouth," and you think: Of course it was. How could it not be?

The novel could have been titled "The Sorrows of Young Rockefeller." It's loosely based upon the story of Michael Rockefeller, son of Nelson, who disappeared in 1961 at age 23 off the coast of New Guinea, where author Gillison was born and raised.

The first chapter has the protagonist, young Stephen Hesse, heir to the oil-rich Hesse family fortune, caught in a monsoon in the Arafura Sea and swimming to shore. The subsequent chapters prefigure this action. Everything is heavy and waterlogged. Rivers and streams are "swollen" or "bursting-full"; book pages are "moisture-fat"; feelings and emotions are "bloated." Life is engorged here. Even the lice and leeches are "blood-fat."

Stephen's first sexual experience, with Christopher Macneice, his Latin teacher at prep school, takes place in a downpour on a muddy April morning. His love for Sheila, a free-spirit painter on Fire Island, is heavy and drags him down. Sheila has "lithe, nut-brown legs full of strength," and her hair is always tied up in a colorful scarf. Like many love affairs, the actual affair is short — less than a chapter — but its effects are long-lasting.

Much of the novel concerns Stephen's various attempts to break free: from his mother's suffocating grasp; from his father's suffocating fortune; from his suffocating, unrequited love for Sheila. Stephen has a poet's soul — he lives by his senses — and he has trouble seeing himself or the world clearly. He doesn't think in terms of homosexual and heterosexual, for example, but simply follows his feelings. One moment he's giddy and provocative around Macneice; the next Macneice seems "a prattling, self-conscious little man," and Stephen can't wait to get away from him. It's an honest depiction of human emotions, but perhaps only children, the artistic and the very rich are allowed to act on their feelings so much. Perhaps it's not wise to do so, either.

Ironically it's in New Guinea, among the most primitive people in the world, for whom the Hesse family name means nothing, that Stephen begins to embrace the power of his name and comes into his own. Ironically this also becomes his undoing. "King of America" is smart about class. Death and love may be great equalizers, but in life money trumps all. When he begs Sheila to marry him, she stops seeing him as Stephen and sees only a Hesse. When Stephen's father, Nicholas, visits New Guinea searching for his son, he realizes the foreign press hates him. "He was grotesque from his wealth, not really human to these men."

The novel is only 213 pages, but it's full of sharp observations and beautiful images and metaphors. Gillison, author of "The Undiscovered Country," obviously has a fierce intelligence and a great talent; she just needs to stop swelling and fattening everything.

The life of Stephen Hesse turns out to be short and turbulent, and it longs for a clarity it seldom finds. "The King of America" is the same way. Clarity swirls away from us just as we are about to grasp it. In this way the book feels like life, and seems just short of brilliant for that.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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