Accounts of wife and child abuse are the daily stuff of newspaper and television reports. The most sensational of these stories have been analyzed in sociological treatises and thinly disguised in fictional accounts with graphic details. Fortunately, Merrill Joan Gerber’s King of the World is neither of these. Although the novel examines what has come to be known in popular psychological terminology as a “dysfunctional family,” Gerber generally veers away from sensationalism in favor of peering into the quirks and glitches in her characters’ personalities. This is a tale of two arrested adolescents: One eventually self-destructs and the other ultimately decides to accept the responsibility of becoming an adult.

There is a fairy-tale quality to the opening segment of King of the World, which is set in Mexico in the late 1960’s. Michael Fisher, a beautiful, golden-haired hippie, has rescued his ugly duckling lover, Ginny, from a boring hospital job in Los Angeles and carried her off to Tijuana to frolic: “…naked in the sun, nearly beside herself with a wild, scary joy. Michael had saved her again from her dullness, from her hopeless, small mind, from her frightened, useless way of thinking.” Styling himself “King of the World,” Michael crowns Ginny his queen, with a broken starfish for a crown.

The idyll is not without its dark undercurrents, however. When a sailor from Barbados propositions Ginny, offering to pay for her favors, Michael thinks it is a fine idea but allows Ginny to decline. This Fisher King is also a poor fisherman. Boasting of his skill, he rents a small boat and takes Ginny and her puppy, Whisper, onto the ocean to teach her to fish. When the motor balks, the fish refuse to bite, and Michael sticks a hook into his hand, his frustration boils over into violence. First he throws the tackle box overboard; then he throws the dog overboard. After he has calmed down, he apologizes:

“Don’t go away, don’t leave me, Ginny,” he begged. “Don’t be mad, 1 didn’t mean it, I need you so much. I can’t live without you.”

“I need you too, Michael,” she said quietly.

“We’ll be happy together, the rest of our lives,” he said. “I promise you.”

“I know we will,” she told him. “I know it.”

So much for the fairy tale.

When the story resumes fifteen years later, Ginny and Michael are mired in the Wasteland. They have bounced from one city to another as Michael has lost one job after another. Ginny again is working in a hospital, and Michael has lost his latest job as a dental technician making gold crowns. They have no money, but Ginny is intent on adopting a baby; a baby, Ginny believes, is her last hope for joy.

Gerber uses an omniscient narrator to shift between Michael’s schizophrenic, paranoid view of the world and Ginny’s growing desperation. Although this technique helps to impart some understanding to each character, the reader ultimately sympathizes with Ginny’s situation. The marriage has been sustained through mutual neediness. Michael needs Ginny’s steadiness and loyalty; he also needs her to obey his every whim—he is, after all, the King of the World. Ginny needs the physical adoration and edgy stimulation that Michael provides, and she is dependent on his needing her. Catching sight of a bum in front of the bank, Ginny realizes that Michael would be in the same situation were it not for her.

Michael is convinced he is being abused by the world. In his mind, it all started when Eric Feldmutter was made an Eagle Scout and he was not. His mother explained to him that Eric’s mother must have had some pull with the Boy Scouts. Not being made an Eagle Scout ruined his life: “It would all have been different if they’d picked him to be the Eagle Scout. It would have been all easy after that. Success breeds success. The rich get rich and the good get screwed.” He can conceive of no other reason for his failure. He knows he should be a millionaire. He is brilliant and beautiful and deserves the best.


(The entire section is 1659 words.)