The King of America

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"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 ...
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Overview

"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.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
The King of America does a wonderful job of delineating its hero's adventures in New Guinea, conjuring that land's heat and light and beauty, while chronicling Stephen's emotional response to that far-off place, his sense that there, where almost no one knows him, he can perhaps discover an identity of his own, separate from that of his father and his family.

The novel is also chockablock with ideas: about the admiring but voyeuristic fascination that anthropologists and art collectors have toward primitive societies; about the class system and its fallout on friendships, marriages and professional associations; about the relationships between fathers and sons; about the dynamic between America and the undeveloped world. — Michiko Kakutani

The New Yorker
In 1961, Stephen Hesse, the son of an American oil titan, finds himself adrift off the coast of Irian Jaya, in the path of a monsoon. Inspired by the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in Dutch New Guinea, Gillison’s novel excavates the interior life of a lonely, willful “prince of America” whose every relationship and attempt at achievement is tainted by his father’s wealth and power. The mystery here is not Stephen’s ultimate fate (Rockefeller’s body was never found) but what draws him from his sheltered world to an untouched Stone Age land where women suckle piglets and men wear necklaces of human vertebrae. As Stephen ranges through the jungle, his fixation on collecting tribal carvings becomes a doomed hunt for himself and “a pure expression of what it was to be a man: sexual, angry, full of remorse, sorry to be a creature that will die.”
Publishers Weekly
Like her acclaimed 1998 debut, The Undiscovered Country, Gillison's second novel is set in New Guinea (where she lived in the early 1970s) and revolves around an introspective only child of bitterly estranged parents. Stephen Hesse-loosely modeled on Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared 40 years ago in then Dutch New Guinea while collecting primitive art for his father's collection-is an excruciatingly lonely, earnest kid struggling to develop an identity under the crushing weight of his father's millions. Gillison skips nimbly through time and space to create a moving portrait of an intellectual, enthusiastic young man who's finding that all his glittering Hesse gold (there's so much of it that even the author sometimes seems to be in its thrall) is as much a curse as a blessing. Aspiring anthropologist Stephen eventually finagles his way onto a Harvard research team bound for New Guinea, and both he and the novel spring fully to life with the advent of dense, teeming coastlines and vertiginous mountain interiors. When compared to the richness of New Guinea's unbridled nature and awesome tribal art, Stephen's previous life feels flat and lifeless. His boredom as a young man in the U.S. occasionally infects the writing itself, but Gillison redeems herself in the jungle: in her loving hands, the lush landscapes throb with color and intensity. By the time Stephen finally disappears, as the reader knows he will, on an ill-advised art-buying mission among head-hunting tribes, one can't help mourning the loss of whatever this awakening might have spurred him to become. 6-city author tour. (Mar. 9) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Uncertain of his sexuality and enthralled by the writing of anthropologist Claude L vi-Strauss, Stephen Hesse finds meaning in a college teacher's plans for an expedition to New Guinea. Stephen's father, the vastly wealthy governor of New York, agrees to finance the expedition. As a participant, Stephen is responsible for collecting the native art. Headstrong and hoping to amass a collection that will impress his father, Stephen disregards warnings of an impending monsoon. When his vessel is swamped, he ignores the caution of his companion and thus vanishes while attempting to swim to shore. This novel has beautiful passages describing the natural splendor of Netherlands New Guinea and fascinating descriptions of its people and their complex art. However, with the exception of a beautiful older woman with whom Stephen has a brief romance, the characters fail to come to life. Although Gillison (The Undiscovered Country) disclaims any resemblance to real people, many readers will be hard-pressed not to think of the tragic disappearance of young Michael Rockefeller, whose story is insufficiently fictionalized here. Buy where anthropology studies include fiction. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/03.]-Judith Kicinski, Sarah Lawrence Coll. Lib., Bronxville, NY Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The author of The Undiscovered Country (1998) delicately portrays an alienated scion of America's wealthiest family searching for spiritual solace in the earth's wildest places. Gillison, who lived for two years in New Guinea as a child, loosely bases her story on the life of Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared there in 1961. Her protagonist is Stephen Hesse, son of a working-class Englishwoman whom megarich Nicholas Hesse married while he was a student at Cambridge and divorced before their son turned two. Stephen grows up encased in his mother's angry, obsessive love, yearning for closer contact with his father, who is proud of his eldest child's academic brilliance but a bit aloof now that Nicholas is more suitably remarried. First a classics teacher at prep school and then an anthropology professor at Harvard show Stephen how an intellectual discipline might assuage some of his emotional needs. He falls in love with an older woman, "the only person in the world who could stop this aching in his chest," but she sends him away not long after Stephen persuades his father to fund an expedition to New Guinea and use Hesse influence to get him invited, even though he's less qualified than the other students. "I have found a place where I am completely at ease," he writes in his notebook. But even among headhunters in the tropics, Stephen never truly shakes off the power and privilege he was born to, as he buys up native artifacts (including the skull of a young man he knew) and browbeats a Dutch diplomat and two guides into taking him out on a boat trip during monsoon season. Yet intelligent, needy Stephen is a sympathetic character, viewed with compassion by the author. Whatever faults hehas, he pays for them with his life in an affecting climax that hints death might be what Stephen Hesse has sought all along. Brooding, lyrical, and thoughtful, though the narrative, like Stephen himself, seems slightly distanced from the events it describes so eloquently. Agency: ICM
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375508196
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/2/2004
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet 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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First Chapter

Chapter 1

The Arafura Sea


At the end of november the monsoon bursts over the southern coast of Irian Jaya, pounding the villages of thatch-roof huts that sit along the Asmat River. Brackish, cloudy streams that run like veins through the salt swamps swell and then, pulled by the tide, gush muddy, debris-filled water into the shallow Arafura Sea. The air, full of rain, becomes heavy with an earthy, briny smell of rotting shrimp and salt water.

The Arafura is a wide, warm sea that stretches from the southern shore of Irian Jaya down to northern Australia. To its west lie the islands of Indonesia; to the east, across the endless open Pacific, sit Fiji and the New Hebrides. And right before the monsoon hits, its waves become lead-colored, silty, bobbing with branches and tangled roots and the twisted leaves of nipa palms. Flying south from the coast in a low plane, the sea spreads out beneath you, murky, until suddenly, ten miles out from land, the water becomes clear; its rippled sandy bottom glows bluish green in the equatorial sun. And far away from shore the clear water teems with silvery clouds of mackerel, darting eels, and schools of nurse sharks that flicker blue and gray as they make for open ocean.

In November, as the monsoon hovers, the Asmat villagers never travel out that far. They stay close to the coast, paddling long dugout canoes with carved heads guarding their prows. But the American art collector had been in a hurry, eager to get to Agats ahead of the rains: he still hoped to get back to the States for Christmas.

They had gone too far from the shore, Stephen Hesse and the Dutch anthropologist Erich Van Gropius and their twoAsmat guides, in the lashed-together catamaran with its tin roof and little outboard motor put-putting in the choppy waves.

It was only early afternoon: the fat, too-close sun still sat high, bleeding haze through the rainy-season clouds. The waves were full of the coming monsoon's violence; one smashed into the other. A huge wave hit the catamaran and swamped the motor. The four men, still sitting in the boat, drifted seaward. Everything as it happened was a slowed-down annoyance; they became waterlogged and clumsy, almost comical, as mishap piled upon mishap. Even Luke and Roman, the Asmat guides, were restless in the sudden motorless quiet of the waves. They seemed unreal to Stephen, like two figures from a silent movie, their facial expressions exaggerated, their request for permission to swim to shore uttered in a different universe.

Stephen was far away, in his head, writing everything as it happened. He was finishing the letter to his father, writing in his journal, picking out details to put down later: the taste of the salty, heavy sea, the gray air, the sight of the two Asmat men diving into the tawny waves and swimming away from the swamped catamaran, the sun moving ever lower in the tropical sky, descending into the swollen clouds. The waves were rougher now; a canvas duffel bag full of notes and film came untied and floated around the left canoe. And still Stephen Hesse was wandering through the letter to his father, trying to explain the odd, inevitable feeling that had taken hold of him.

At dusk, another wave hit and the tied-together canoes turned over. Their luggage floated away and then slowly, regretfully, sank into the Arafura. Stephen and Van Gropius clambered up out of the water, slipping and grabbing the slick wood backs of the upside-down catamaran. The two men said almost nothing to each other, following physical movement only with physical movement, fighting the sea. They reached under water and broke off pieces of wood from the catamaran's wall and tried to paddle, but the current was too strong. They gave up and straddled the upside-down canoes.

It rained all night, the low clouds dripping, covering them in a soft, salty mist as they drifted south and west, toward open ocean. A half-moon glowed. The two men were quiet through the night, awake, wet and cold, listening to the small rain on the waves, the canoes slapping the water.

At dawn the shore was a wavering brown line on a distant horizon.

"I think I can make it," Hesse said.

"Don't," Van Gropius said, shaking his head. "Stay with me. Just wait."

Van Gropius's dark hair was wet and flat against his skull; his mustache hung down over his upper lip. He looked sorry and frightened, heavy, like a walrus. He glanced away from Stephen at the empty Arafura. "There are boats coming still, you know. We will get picked up."

"I think I can make it," the young American said. "You don't know the swimmer I am."

He smiled over Van Gropius's head at the day starting to break, at the pink sky. He took off his pants and shoes, peeled off his cold, wet shirt, his singlet and underwear. He emptied their two petrol tins, spilling the now-useless chemical into the seawater. He tied the empty containers to his waist with his belt, as floats.

"Well," he said. "I go."

and then he was in the arafura, swimming and swimming. He had stopped writing the letter. Now he was only the motion of his arms and legs, the warm, fishy-tasting water. A fragment of a poem fluttered through him.

In Freiburg station, wai.ting for a train,

I saw a Bishop with Puce gloves go by.

He swam straight and strong, and felt his heart pumping. A school of pilot fish light as a cloud of butterflies swarmed him, brushed against his face and arms, his thighs. He felt the rain start up, splashing him through the waves. An image of Maine beset him: walking down to the water through the trees behind the house, the wind nudging the branches of an old birch. Squinting into the northern sunlight. Lobster boats on the bay, the hum of a motor on the water, the gulls calling, screeching, complaining, as he picked through seaweed-covered rocks at low tide, his red tin bucket in hand, gathering mussels for his mother. Plopping the barnacle-covered creatures into his bucket of cool seawater, watching baby starfish drift in the shallow tide.

A gray nurse shark, aggressive, dumb, brushed up against Stephen's belly, jolting him from memory. She swam away slowly, uninterested. The waves had become gradually, rhythmically rougher, harder to get through. At that moment an awful coldness rushed through him, like death. He had a vision of himself, absurdly small, headstrong, flailing through an infinite ocean. The effort of swimming, the fear, the night with Van Gropius wet and cold in the Arafura, released an ache of loneliness inside him. He could feel it in his blood, making him cold. He could feel it in the seawater.

He realized then just how much he missed Sheila, how he carried it with him. He had a flash of her: green-gold eyes, skin that tasted like sunlight. Ah, Sheila, he thought. Sheila, my sweetheart.

The two petrol tins bobbing from his waist were a drag, were only weight now. He untied his belt and watched them float away. He opened his mouth and salty rain dripped onto his tongue. He felt better without the tins. He looked through the hazy morning at the mangrove trees lining the shore in the distance. The only thing was to keep moving, to keep swimming. He cleared everything from his mind except the feel of the sea on his body, the taste of it in his mouth, the ceaseless rain, the slight warmth of the early sun, the motion of his arms and legs cutting through the choppy, coastal waves.

Van Gropius could no longer see him.

Chapter 2

The Starry Night


Stephen Hesse and his mother lived at 1062 Park Avenue during the school year, and in the summers they traveled up to Maine. They followed Stephen's father, Nicholas Hesse, and his new family, shadowing him and his second wife, their brood of fair-haired children and servants, as they migrated north up the Atlantic coast in the warm weather and then south again when the blueberry fields on Mount Desert Island turned violent fire-colors: brilliant orange, red, maroon, yellow. In the six years after Nicholas Hesse remarried, Stephen went from being the only child of a man worth more than $270 million to being the oldest of five children who would one day share that amount.

When their marriage broke apart in 1939, a phalanx of Hesse lawyers gave Nicholas's first wife the following: their son, Stephen, the immense apartment at 1062 Park Avenue, a cut-stone sun-filled cottage in the Hesse compound on Mount Desert and money. Marguerite would live off the interest of a fortune that Stephen would come into on his majority. After that, if she hadn't remarried, she would receive an equivalent allowance from the Hesse family trust. The lawyers took care of Marguerite; no matter what, she would live out her life on a rich woman's income, although she had no wealth of her own and the baby, Stephen, owned the apartment in New York and the cottage in Maine.

nicholas hesse fell in love with stephen's mother when he was studying in England. Marguerite O'Keefe was the daughter of the woman who cleaned his rooms at Cambridge. The charwoman's daughter. Black curls framing eyes of the darkest brown. She was a short, plump woman, with wide hips and a full mouth, who read serious books. When Nicholas first met her, she only wanted to talk about T. S. Eliot.

Marguerite brought tomato-and-cheddar sandwiches on thick slices of black bread and a bottle of red wine wrapped in newspaper and read aloud Rupert Brooke's poetry while Nicholas punted the two of them along the river Cam, the sunlight green, the warm air full of the muddy river through a slow, English summer day.

These I have loved: white

plates and cups, clean gleaming,

ringed with blue lines;

and feathery, fairy dust.

The deep, musky smell of her, the soft hair in her armpits, her menstrual blood on his fingertips, seeped into him. Nicholas sat in his room reading Pater and Nietzsche, and his mind floated through her. Marguerite was silent, her intent brown eyes full of life, the stillness of her manner hiding the rush, the beating warmth of her. It was as though he were only his animal self with Marguerite, responding without willing it to the smell of her, to her full pink-lipstick-covered lips. Yes, she was a fortune hunter. She and her mother were a team. They had set their net wide for him, quiet, homesick American that he was. Nicholas was handsome in his way, fine blond hair already thinning, serious green eyes smiling above a square face and a muscular German peasant's body beneath his clothes.

And everything his father thundered at him in endless cables, and then in person in London, Nicholas knew the first moment he saw Marguerite standing outside Peter House in her sky blue jumper, her white stockings, the matching blue beret pulled down over her black curls.

In the earliest days of their romance he had sat at his desk while her mother cleaned his rooms. Mrs. O'Keefe swept, dragged a rag across the windowpanes, stripped the bed linen, emptied his rubbish bin of fingernail parings and crumpled-up papers. Marguerite was a fortune hunter. He saw her so clearly, and himself, too, falling into her like Alice down the rabbit hole. But, weirdly, it made him want her more; for the first and only time in his life he stood opposed to his father. He saw all of Marguerite as though he were her, as though he wore her skin.

They got married in the Registry Office in London and sailed back to New York. His father had pressured him relentlessly to come home, fretting in endless cables about Chamberlain; about the war that loomed over England; about his son, with his German last name, so far from home.

when nicholas finally left marguerite, he felt like a man surfacing from the bottom of the ocean. When they divorced, Stephen was still a baby, not even two years old. Dark like his mother, with her same impossibly pure velvet brown eyes full of loneliness, full of feeling. Nicholas couldn't be married to Marguerite: he shouldn't have married Marguerite. But he had. She was too foreign; she didn't even seem English to Nicholas's parents or their friends. No one knew what to make of Nicholas's marriage to a servant's child-the whole thing was as strange and scandalous as if he had married an Italian peasant while on holiday in Rome.

Marguerite was always quiet, sitting silent through tea parties in her honor, taciturn through formal dinners. No. He was to be king and she could not be queen. But he had held on to his first marriage until the last moment, knowing that he would have to push her away, but lost in her smell, in the warmth between her legs.

And in the end, Nicholas Hesse couldn't move far from his first wife and son: he bought another apartment in 1062 Park Avenue, in the opposite tower, which used a separate elevator. Even if he couldn't see her, he wanted her and the baby close by.

Less than a year after his divorce, Nicholas married Kiki Theale, a woman he should have been married to from the beginning. A blond and tall woman, a Texas lawyer's daughter, clever, light of heart, a golfer. Nicholas wanted to have Stephen with him and Kiki on the weekends, but when his lawyers brought up the idea to Marguerite, she exploded in a primitive rage. She would, she told them, kill her baby before she'd let that woman near it.

in the morning, the doormen at 1062 park avenue watched as first one and then the second Hesse wife strode across the black marble lobby. One blond and thin, full of movement, always pregnant, bulging with life, almost dancing, her long legs striding rhythmically, a fluffy mink hat framing her narrow, pretty face. It was as though she were drinking her life; her beauty, her wealth. It was her moment.

And the other, the first wife, slow, alone, or with her quiet, serious son, her wide, dark eyes absorbing every movement, every shadow, her pale skin, her black curls, turning gray, pulled back from her grave, un-made-up face in a knot. Like an owl, cruising past them, staring, blinking, full of contained violence.

"Good morning, Mrs. Hesse," the doormen murmured as she nodded and walked out of the heavy brass-inlaid doors, clutching her son's hand, ducking into their waiting car.

Stephen absorbed his mother's unhappiness, her mannerisms, her stilled anger, until they were so alike that they were a comic sight to the doormen at 1062. As far as they could see, the boy had nothing of his father about him. He had inherited his mother's Black Irish coloring, her thick-boned frame and heavy, fleshy legs.

Copyright© 2004 by Samantha Gillison
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Reading Group Guide

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 theassurance of a born novelist. Part love story, part adventure yarn, part family tragedy, The King of America is an exceptional feat of storytelling.

1. How is The King of America shaped by its two very distinct and opposite settings: cosmopolitan New York and lush New Guinea? How does Gillison explore the duality of culture and character through these two settings?

2. Gillison describes Nicholas Hesse as "the source of life, of oil: the blood of America. Loving him was like loving the sun or the wind" (p.18). How does his father's immense wealth color Stephen's existence? How would you characterize their relationship? How would you describe the pressure Stephen feels as his father's son?

3. How is Stephen torn between his parents? Describe where his loyalties lie and the conflict he feels within his family life. How does he change in his father's presence? What expectations does Marguerite have of him? Why does Nicholas Hesse insist that his ex-wife and first son stay close to him?

4. Stephen Hesse is portrayed as a very physical character; he relishes the release he gains through athletics and is hyperobservant of the sensual aspects of his surroundings. What does this trait show about his character? How does his physicality shape his emotions and motives?

5. Describe Stephen's sexual identity and growth. What are the implications of Stephen's affair with his professor, MacNeice? What attracts him to Sheila? And what does Gillison mean when she writes "Somehow she reminded him of himself" (p. 51)? Discuss Sheila's feelings for Stephen. How does she regard him?

6. What do you think are Stephen's ultimate motives for his trip to New Guinea? He really comes to life in New Guinea–throughout most of the novel we've seen him as a fairly disconsolate character, but in this new environment, he undergoes a transformation. What is it about New Guinea that inspires Stephen? How is he different in this new world?

7. What do you think are Stephen's reasons for joining this expedition to New Guinea? What does he want to accomplish?

8. Stephen witnesses a sick boy's death in New Guinea that deeply disturbs him. Later, in his journal, he writes: "The difference between our feelings for human remains and the Asmats' is a very simple one. Our feelings seem to be the exact opposite to theirs–so really, in a way, our two cultures feel identically about death" (p. 160). How is death treated in The King of America? Do you think the sick boy's death parallels Stephen's in any sense?

9. How does Stephen feel about the treatment of New Guinea art, and how do his opinions differ from those of the other men on the expedition? What do the bisj poles mean to Stephen, and what do they symbolize for the novel as a whole?

10. How does the poetry that recurs throughout the novel work to enhance our understanding of the different characters–specifically, Marguerite and Stephen? How does it help us explore Stephen's complicated feelings about his mother? How do Gillison's frequent references to the Bible and classical mythology move the narrative forward?

11. Throughout The King of America, Stephen grapples with confusion over his identity. Does he ever reach any kind of personal freedom and comfort? When is he happiest and most free?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2004

    Riveting!

    Hesse's desire to form a connecton with his father is obsessive.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2004

    Interesting story of a young man trying to find his place in life!

    I found this book to be well written with meticulous detailed descriptions of New Guinea. I was very involved with the main charater, Stephen Hess, and his unique experiences growing up as the son of a wealthy man while never being accepted and loved by his father. Stephen's involvement in collecting artifacts and pieces of art while studying the people of New Guinea showed a unique prospective of the life in this exotic country. I would recommend ths book to all readers of literary fiction.

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