Reviewed by Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 1971–73)
OF ALL THE RPCV WRITERS who have come out of Micronesia, P.F. Kluge is perhaps the most successful. He has had published by mainstream traditional publishers a total of nine novels and two non-fiction works. Most of the RPCV writers who get reviewed on this site are either self-published or published by small presses with scant resources for marketing. Kluge has had two of his writings made into movies. Real, Hollywood movies. I must admit, I envy his success. I had read two of his works before: The Day I Die: A Novel of Suspense [Bobbs-Merrill 1976] set mostly in Palau, and The Edge of Paradise: America in Micronesia [Random House 1991], his Micronesia memoir prompted in part by the suicide of a Micronesian leader he knew well.
Though we both served in Micronesia only a few years apart, our experiences couldn’t have been more different. I wore a thu, went barefoot, taught school in a thatch hut, and traveled around by either ship or sailing canoe. Kluge wore shoes, worked in an air conditioned office, and hung out on Saipan’s Capitol Hill with Micronesian leaders from all parts of the old Trust Territory. Saipan and Guam, where I live, are only 120 miles apart and I’ve visited Saipan several times though not lately. News from Saipan does get reported on Guam, and the islands share many similarities, but also have many differences that I don’t have time to delve into. With all that in mind, I was really curious as to what Kluge’s take on Saipan today would be. I was not disappointed.
The Master Blaster is a fascinating and mostly successful attempt to capture the essence of Saipan, the island where Kluge served most of his Peace Corps experience. He’s been back to Saipan often, and probably keeps up with events there as much as he can. In The Master Blaster, he delicately and precisely dissects Saipan, showing us the beauty and decay, the potential and the corruption, which exist side by side. He brings four outsiders to the island: three Americans and an English-speaking Bangladeshi laborer. The story is told through their eyes, but the structure of this novel is a bit unusual. It’s divided into seven sections, each with five chapters. Each chapter focuses on one of the four characters plus an extra chapter for “The Master Blaster,” an anonymous blogger who exposes corruption on the island and is actually an aging ex-patriot who has spent most of his life there. I had a bit of a problem with this. Each of the newcomer’s chapters is told in the first person. This keeps the voice shifting from one character to another and sometimes I would forget whose chapter I was in and thus whose voice was talking. Then, for some reason I’m not quite sure, the Master Blaster’s chapters are in third person.
Nevertheless, Kluge’s prose is rich and full of surprisingly stinging metaphors and similes, like a serious Tom Robbins. On Saipan’s caves: “They were like mouths. Dark, gaping holes that swallowed lives, surrounded by a cliff that was pockmarked and discolored by shell fire.” But he also describes Saipan’s beauty: the ocean and lagoon, the jungle, the sunsets. He lays out the life of Saipan as seen by a frustrated travel writer, a shady but friendly land speculator, a contract female college professor, the aforementioned Bangladeshi, and the Master Blaster himself. Along the way his descriptions of Saipan are brutally accurate. They show everything as it is in spite of our desire to see a tropical paradise —
Except for a walk at dawn or dusk, beaches were tedious and tortuous. Lying on them, jogging on them, making love on them: an overrated trio. The sweat, the grit, the itch, the skin cancer! Sans conflict, sans history, sans hurly-burly, islands were for shipwreck cartoons. Who wouldn’t stuff a note in a bottle and hope for rescue?
Kluge’s symbolism hits hard. On a closed down garment factory —
Inside, the size of the place impressed him, a complex of buildings on one vast floor of concrete. The island was buried beneath it somewhere, with no room to breathe, as sealed off as a body in a casket.
The four different characters’ paths keep crossing as Kluge weaves together a plot that perhaps could only have gone in the direction it did. They fall in love with Saipan, except perhaps the Bangladeshi, and try to figure out ways to stay. But they are chewed up and eventually spit out by a maddening island that is beautiful and desirous and dangerous all at once. There are many other characters of course that fit into Kluge’s weave. Japanese tourists, Chinese garment workers and gamblers (and some hookers), Filipina maids and masseuses (and hookers), Russian hookers, Korean workers, Micronesian gold diggers, ex-patriot American complainers, and, at the center of it all, local Chamorros and Carolinians with a lot more control over happenings than one at first realizes.
A few minor complaints for the record: Magellan landed on Guam and never reached Saipan; the Marianas Trench does not lie in the waters between Tinian and Saipan; and “yellow rice” is actually red rice made with coloring from achote seeds.
Kluge has managed to encapsulate the entirety of issues that swirl around in Saipan. From what I can tell, I can’t think of anything major in The Master Blaster that is blatantly false, nor can I think of much he left out. And while some on Saipan will probably be upset at this novel since the “kill the messenger” attitude is much imbued in the culture, it’s not just a fictionalized expose or indictment of Saipan. It is also a love letter from Kluge who, like the Master Blaster in his novel, would hope that he could help make things better, knows that he can’t, but still loves the island anyway.
Reviewer Reilly Ridgell is the author of the textbooks Pacific Nations and Territories and Pacific Neighbors; the collection of Peace Corps stories Bending to the Trade Winds; and the Micronesia novel Green Pearl Odyssey. His latest novel, The Isla Vista Crucible, was released earlier this year by Savant Books and Publications.