Reviewed by Philip Damon (Ethiopia 1963–65)
This is a gem of a book. It’s a coming of age saga that touches on visceral themes affecting numerous cultures in a disarmingly naïve narrative voice. Under the guise of a surfer’s escape fantasy gone haywire, author Tyler McMahon deftly enables his part-Hawaiian Peace Corps engineer Malia to narrate her story in such a way that it unfolds on numerous levels of situation and meaning. At one level, it’s a fictional chronicle of the El Salvador earthquakes of 2001, limning the experiences of two groups of people-the earthy class of Salvadorans, and the twenty-something PCVs living and serving among them. At another level, it’s a tale of intrigue and danger in a foreign land. And at a subtler level, Malia’s narrative breathes life to the conflicting pulls of responsibility and youthful indulgence, embedding them poignantly into the archetypal options of committing to “the rescue” or of finding the perfect wave. At that level, it is a novel for its generation. As a thriller call it a three on the salsa scale, but as an inner journey it’s a solid five out of five.
Impossible to be given justice in a brief review, it’s the kind of story-layered in when’s and why’s-that resists summary yet is hardly opaque. It’s the kind of story that wants you to think it can be synopsized and paraphrased, but cannot. While K 99 is not really my favorite title choice, the eponymous surfing locale has depths of meaning for Malia, and thus for the entirety of the novel. Poignantly conflicted as a character, she adroitly shifts tenses from the present-time plot line in the aftermath of the first quake, providing the reader (and herself) with aptly located past-tense chapters that revealingly recollect the story of her months in country leading up to that life-changing temblor.
It’s a love story also, and the opening chapter is a lyrical memory of that earlier time, when she catches a rare tubular wave. As her PCV lover Ben cheers from his board, with Mariachi horns sounding on shore, she “wished I could always see the world that way: from out of the inside of a wave…a swirling set of blinders that block out all the second guesses.” After the wave closes and she rises to the surface, she declares for the first time her love for Ben, who echoes the sentiment as they swim back for more waves. Yet as they do, Malia the story-teller adds a foreshadowing touch: “We didn’t know then about all the troubles that were only a few months into our future. Back then, I didn’t know how hard I’d try to regain that view from inside the tube…the perspective…fast, obvious, moving forward in one direction, with Ben at the center.” The prologue chapter closes on a telling note: “In some ways, it’s what I’d always looked for in El Salvador: a small, safe place where I fit in, between layers of violence and gallons of water.”
There are indeed layers of both to follow, some natural, others not so. Separately and harrowingly, they survive the first of the temblors on January 13, which leaves their projects in disarray and them in disillusionment-hers as the engineer of an ambitious aqueduct, his as an agro-forestry specialist. Nor will it give away the intricate plot that follows to divulge their immediate decision, once they’re safely reunited, to terminate their tours with just a half-year remaining, in order to abandon the country for a surfing adventure southward all the way to the tip of South America. Before they’ve made their final goodbyes to the locals, however, they become involved, then entangled, in a web of schemes and scams that threaten their safety more direly than the earthquake they have miraculously survived-or the second one that is yet to come, a month later to the day.
The unfolding of these schemes and scams involves an array of characters and settings that bring life to the Salvadoran crisis and the couple’s escalating predicament, not to mention larger themes of international monkey business. Details of setting and character are artfully spot-on, from idyllic surf spots to devastated adobe communities, from aimlessly idealistic volunteers to mindlessly predatory village crackheads. The nifty choice to make Malia half-Hawaiian, half-Japanese even further enhances the ironies of colonial history, given that her own grandparents had met working on island plantations not unlike those across the countryside of this sadly struggling Central American nation.
McMahon thus covers a vast terrain of thematic ground in this story full of peril and heartbreak, but it is ultimately the inner ground of his young heroine that he brings to fruition. She is sorely tried by what she and Ben get themselves into-with the help of a shady cast of others-and therein lies the substance of the novel’s soaring redemption. It is one of the givens of narrative that stories which open in first person must end that way as well. Yet how it unfolds for her along the way must remain for the reader to find out.
Tyler McMahon is the author of How the Mistakes Were Made, a novel about the Seattle grunge rock scene, and teaches creative writing at Hawaii Pacific University.
Philip Damon taught creative writing and spirituality in literature at the University of Hawaii from 1968 to 2002. He published several dozen short stories in literary journals in the ’70s and ’80s, including Best American Short Stories of 1977, before gravitating toward more holistic interests. Now living in Bellingham, Washington, he writes two on-line columns: “Sacred Democracy” at readthedirt.org, and “Just Thinking” at whatcomwatch.org.