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Picks and Pans Review: The King of America

updated 04/05/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/05/2004 01:00AM

By Samantha Gillison
NOVEL
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Nelson Rockefeller's son Michael was last seen in 1961, swimming toward the coast of New Guinea. His fate is unknown: Did the millionaire drown in turbulent waters? Or was he captured and eaten by the same headhunters he'd been living among and studying? In a fictionalized retelling, Gillison follows a young anthropology student, whom she calls Stephen Hesse, to New Guinea, where he collects native artifacts. Combining elements of travelogue and domestic drama, plus adventure and romance, Gillison ends up exploding hoary notions of what happens when the Park Avenue set comes face-to-face with the "primitive" world, and Hesse's stubborn, poetic personality takes on a life of its own. Gillison has a gift for detail and her sentences fall and fold like fine fabric: "Ms. Lyle was smarter than him; he admired her for it. She was beautiful too, but she had no sex." The King of America, too, is smart and beautiful and contains a great deal to admire.

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