A Writer Writes

Whenever I want to annoy Peace Corps writers I tell them that P.F. Kluge Micronesia (1969-70) is the smartest writer to serve as a PCV. That gets them. They, of course, if they know anything of Kluge’s work, can’t really dismiss my claim.

kluge-pfPaul Frederick Kluge has had a long and illustrious career as a novelist, academic, travel writer, journalist and lecturer. Not to list all of his lengthy CV, (which runs a full five pages) let just note a few of his many accomplishments.

Early in his career, when he was a young editor at Life magazine, he wrote a story for them that became the film, Dog Day Afternoon. He next wrote a novel that became the 1983 film of the same name, Eddie and the Cruisers. In 1992 he wrote his “Peace Corps” memoir, The Edge of Paradise: America in Micronesia, published by Random House in 1991 and winner of the Paul Cowan Prize Peace Corps Writers prize for non-fiction in 1992. In 1993 he wrote a wonderful book on Kenyon College entitled, Alma Mater: A College Homecoming.

Add to these his many honors, including a Fulbright Senior Fellow to Bucharest, Romania in 2006; the Secretary of State of Ohio Citation for Contribution to Arts and Humanities; and the North American Travel Journalists Association 1st Price in 2009.

He has written six additional novels, including Biggest Elvis, published in 1996 by Viking Press, and essays and articles in magazines and journals ranging from National Geographic Traveler, Islands Magazine, TV Guide, Wall Street Journal, Geo, Rolling Stone to the Wall Street Journal, Sport, Playboy and Reader’s Digest.

He returned to Kenyon in 1987 and, since 1995, he has also been the Writer-in-Residence.

Fred was an undergraduate at Kenyon College, graduating summa cum laude, and writing his senior essay on John Dos Passos and Edmund Wilson. He went to the University of Chicago for his M.A. and Ph.D in 1967 and graduated “With Distinction” from the university’s most prestigious program, the Committee on the History of Culture, writing his thesis on Wanderers-Three American Writers of the 1920’s.

All of that qualifies him as perhaps the best and brightest RPCV writers, but let me add one and obscure fact that makes P.F. Kluge, in my mind at least, a genius in his own right!

In his final year at Chicago he roomed with an RPCV named Marty Benjamin (Ethiopia 1962-64) who was getting his PhD in mathematics at the university and Marty Benjamin–a long time friend of Marian Beil and myself– convinced Kluge to join the Peace Corps. Fred took his roommate’s good advice and went to paradise, as the Peace Corps PR department billed that host-country assignment to the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, Micronesia. Now, as I said, anyone who takes the advice of an RPCV from Ethiopia and joins the Peace Corps is one smart guy, maybe, even a genius!

With that long account of Kluge’s past as prologue, let me add a small note to this essay by Fred. When I heard Josh Radnor was going to do a film entitled Liberal Arts set at Kenyon College, I knew that there must be a “Kluge connection” and sent P.F. an email note asking if he had anything to write for our site. He was, as always, kind enough to send me the follow account about the film that was done last summer on their beautiful Gambier, Ohio campus.

A Film Crew In My Face

By P.F. Kluge (Micronesia 1967-69)

LAST SUMMER, JOSH RADNOR, Kenyon College graduate, (1996), actor (How I Met Your Mother) and film director (happypleasethankyoumore) returned to campus to film Liberal Arts, a tale of personal and professional turmoil at a place like, very like, the one that employs me as long-time Writer in Residence. He came back in summer, when the place is empty and beautiful and that was a shrewd move. There’s no way one can imagine a watchable film coming out of anywhere in Ohio’s small college gulag in winter when everything is black and white and gray. My campus office is in a place called Finn House, which mainly accommodates Kenyon’s iconic literary magazine, the Kenyon Review. I work there a lot, on student papers, my own manuscripts, the New York Times crossword puzzle and it was from there I watched a college become a film set, with Josh Radnor its director and star.

I knew Josh from his student days. He’d taken my fiction writing workshop. We’d met once on Columbus Avenue, in New York, and had some beers.  And we’d talked when he came back to campus, talked about books. That was something I liked about him: he was a reader. Now, though, he had the place buzzing. Administrators, faculty and staff volunteered for roles as extras and I count on seeing my wife crossing Gambier’s main road, when the film comes out. I wise-cracked that I was holding out for a speaking role which did not…as Howard Cosell used to say— “eventuate.” There was more than that going on in me, more even than the familiar mix of pride and envy with which a professor regards a student’s success in the great world. I had, I admit, come to regard Gambier, Ohio as my turf. I’d written a non-fiction book about Kenyon called Alma Mater, which almost cost me my job. A novel, Final Exam, offered a serial killer on campus, someone’s who’s animus was aimed, not at individual victims, but at the college itself. More recently, I’d produced Gone Tomorrow, in which a thoughtful, occasionally caustic professor contemplated a life spent or misspent, a talent tapped or wasted, over thirty years in Ohio. Three books from this small chunk of Knox County, Ohio. And now my personal Yoknapatwpha  had been invaded. My territory, my turf and, eventually, my office.

Finn House

Finn House

I knew they’d be filming in Finn House. A good day to stay home, just as on a previous morning, I’d gone elsewhere when the film captured the coffee shop where I sit with friends  every day. Trucks and lights filled the Finn House driveway. Cables and duct tapes ran up and down the halls outside the office where I sat, trying to look busy and indifferent. I kept the door open, on purpose, to let them know I was there unmoved, unmovable. I’m here. I’ve been here.  And, as Jennifer Hudson  sang in Dreamgirls, “I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”

Then Radnor was leaning in my doorway. We talked about books again. He left, only to return a moment later. There was something special going on down the hall, he thought I might be interested. I followed him to a room that adjoins my office, sat with Radnor and his team, watching on monitors that captured a scene that was being filmed, just across the hall. I saw a vintage professor, nicely incarnated by the actor Richard Jenkins, breezing into the provost’s office. The professor is well known, highly regarded, impressive and impressed by his ability to impress. Trust me: I know that type. Buoyant and nonchalant, he tells the provost (off-camera), that maybe he jumped the gun on his decision to retire. He’s discovered, he says, that’s he’s got some teaching left in him. Three years, let’s say. And as for the retirement party that’s imminent, well, let’s just go ahead of it and, three years from now we won’t bother.

I’m captured. I know this man. He’s in me and many of my colleagues. He says he wants to retire, talks a big game and then — as the end nears — comes to dread the loss of work, purpose, identity, authority, recognition.  An existential void. So he goes to see the provost. And  is told that his replacement has been hired, the search committee bagged their first choice, everyone’s excited about the newcomer. So the answer is no. And an initially light-hearted scene turns bitter, ironic, and quite sad. And I watch it again and again, from one take to the next. I can’t get out of my chair.

After that, what I wish for Radnor is  just what I’ve wished for myself over the years, when I wrote about my  places in my home state, New Jersey, places in the Philippines, where I set three novels,  when I wrote about Kenyon College, and when I’ve written about my Peace Corps islands of Micronesia. My next novel, The Master Blaster, is set on the island of Saipan. I hope for success and understanding. (The early reception of Liberal Arts suggests that Radnor will be better than okay).  These days, when almost everyone is a spin-meister, media-wise, counting plusses and minuses, pondering the impact of a film or a book,  I continue to believe that any place that’s been wrapped in words, or film, has been given a gift. I wish Radnor the best. And if he turns to one of my books . . . we’ll talk.