[This article by Mark DiIonno appeared on September 9, 2010, in the New Jersey Star-Ledge.]
BERKELEY HEIGHTS – Author P.F. Kluge’s life has been a global travelogue, taking him far from his childhood home in Berkeley Heights.
The Peace Corps took him to the Pacific Island of Palau, and among his favorite places are the Austria village of Altausse, and the Island of Mallaca in the Bay of Bengal.
His novel “Biggest Elvis” takes place in the shot-and-beer and g-string town outside the Navy base in Subic Bay, the Phillippines. “Master Blaster,” due out next year, takes place on Saipan, where U.S. Marines battled Japanese soldiers in World War II.
After a life of exploring other cultures, Kluge, 69, decided to rediscover his own. “A Call from Jersey,” which was released this week, takes place mostly around Berkeley Heights and centers around an immigrant story rarely told: that of the German-American during World War II.
“My father worked in a factory that made railroad engines, then converted to tanks,” Kluge (pronounced Clue-gee) said. “He was making weapons he knew would be unleashed on the people back home.”
“One of my earliest memories is my mother and other women putting together packages for people back in Germany after the war. They would send soap and lard and razor blades, or whatever they thought was needed. And there was the terrible sense that the people they loved were not only destitute, but were on the world hit list.”
The book is about the relationship between Hans Greifinger, a German immigrant of Max Schmeling vintage, and his son, George, a travel writer who as changed his last name to Griffin. Hans,a widower, is suffering from an elder-life crisis of alienation. His German-American neighborhood in Berkeley Heights ages out, and he is left alone on a block of strangers. It leaves him wandering back to the old days, taking his son with him through stories of Max Schmeling and a long lost brother, named Heinz, who left America to fight for Nazi Germany.
“The book is really about conversations with my father I never got to have,” Kluge said. “I have tried to imagine his experience as an American, and as a German in America, especially between the two world wars.”
The son, too, is culturally adrift. He is a second-generation American, suddenly trying to understand his parents’ life and re-connect with their lost old-world ways.
“As I grow older, and the number of years since my parents have died grows larger, I grow closer to them,” Kluge said. “As I get older, I miss the sound of their voices, the sound of German being spoken around me, and the stories they told. I miss the beer parties and German songs sung into the night. I miss mother’s potato pancakes.”
The book’s sense of place is authentic. Kluge writes about “13 Bumps,” (Johnston Road in Watchung), which climbs the mountain above Route 22 and has been a teenage makeout place for generations, from Model As to Mitsubishis. And Snuffy’s in Scotch Plains, gone from “roadhouse to Parthenon.” Old Hans even recalls Madame Bey’s, the old Passaic-side boxing training camp on River Road in Summit, where Schmeling once trained.
Only one of Kluge’s previous seven novels was a Jersey story, and it was his most famous. “I set ‘Eddie and the Cruisers,’ in South Jersey. I spent the summer of 1962 working as a college intern at the Vineland Times Journals, and I found South Jersey so fascinating, and so different from here I was from. You could smell whatever they were canning that day in the air.”
“Eddie and the Cruisers,” was about a Doo-Wop/rock crossover group from the farmlands outside Vineland, but the movie, starring Tom Berenger and Michael Paré had very Springsteenesque feel.
“It was about a band from my era (the ’60s), but by the time I finished the book, Springsteen was big, so the movie went in that direction.”
With “A Call from Jersey,” Kluge has completed a story he started writing 20 years ago, but lost his way with it. “I was ready now,” he said. “I needed that time to understand what I was looking for. Sometimes time works against you, and sometimes it works in your favor.”
P.F. Kluge will return home to do a reading at the Berkeley Heights Public Library on Sept. 30 at 7 p.m.