A bare-knuckle, adventure-filled journey in search of the answer to a half-century–old cold case: Whatever happened to Nelson Rockefeller’s son, Michael?
Michael was 23 when he disappeared off the coast of southwestern New Guinea, having nearly made land after swimming for 18 hours when his catamaran capsized. Dutch officials (for this was still colonial territory in 1961) eventually reported that the renowned explorer and collector of so-called primitive art had drowned. National Geographic Traveler contributing editor Hoffman (The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World…via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes, 2010, etc.) writes that, all this time later, the story compelled him: “I was a half-Jewish middle-class mutt with a public education, not a blue-blooded scion, but Rockefeller’s journey resonated with me.” Empathetically channeling Rockefeller as someone who wasn’t out in such remote territory merely to acquire stuff but was instead challenging himself in anything but the privileged surroundings of his youth, Hoffman set out to reconstruct that last voyage. He encountered evidence that the young man’s end was greatly different from the one depicted in the official records. Moreover, he notes, it was an open secret that Rockefeller had been killed after having been plucked from the sea. But why? In a daring ethnographic turn, Hoffman spent months among the descendants of killers, lending specific weight to the old clashing-of-worlds trope and addressing questions of why people go to war, commit cannibalism and other tangled matters. He never loses sight of his goal, but Hoffman is also sympathetic to the plight of the Asmat people, who themselves were changed by the events of 53 years ago: “The world had been one way when Michael Rockefeller came to Asmat, another by the time he was dead.”
A searching, discomfiting journey yields an elegant, memorable report.