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The Master Blaster by P.F. Kluge

yap
kluge-master-blasterP.F. Kluge served in the Peace Corps on Saipan in the late '60s at the same time that my family was living on Yap elsewhere in Micronesia. Micronesia at that time was a United Nations Trust Territory administered by the United States, and Saipan was the headquarters. When the Micronesian islands were granted "independence" in the '70s, Saipan and its associated islands (including Tinian, which launched the Enola Gay on its mission to drop the bomb on Hiroshima in 1945) became a commonwealth of the United States called the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). This special status makes Saipan and the CNMI the furthest flung piece of America, which fact is the focus of Kluge's most recent novel, The Master Blaster.

Like Kluge's non-fiction book, The Edge of Paradise, which is the best piece of writing about Micronesia from an American perspective that I've ever read, The Master Blaster is about the American empire (and thus the American Dream) as seen from the margins. But while its focus is on America and Americans, it's also an astute portrait of island life and Micronesian culture and how it has been transformed by, and yet still resists, foreign influence. Even though Saipan is quite a bit different from Yap (if only because it has actual strategic value to the US and therefore has had a greater infusion of capital), Kluge's portrayal of how the island is both a beloved home and an eternally strange land to its American inhabitants really speaks to my experience of Yap. No matter how long an American lives in the islands, they aren't really of the islands.

The Master Blaster follows five characters on Saipan. The Master Blaster himself is a figure who like Kluge moved to the island in the late '60s, but unlike Kluge he stayed for the rest of his life. Now an old man dying of cancer, he has started a blog under the eponymous title of the book that criticizes the corruption and criminal misbehavior of various parties claiming to develop and better Saipan's hopeless economy. Three of the other main characters are Americans who at the beginning of the novel wash ashore after their separate failures at life and career in the US -- one a hack travel writer, one a recently-divorced school teacher, and one a shady real estate developer. The fifth viewpoint character is a Bengladeshi worker who has come to Saipan (after a similar gig in Dubai) looking to earn money to remit to his home village and perhaps to find a backdoor into America as well.

Kluge's approach to this material reminds me of Charles Portis' novels about Americans in Mexico and Central American. There's a satirical edge to his treatment of the eccentric characters and their absurd attempts to con their way through life, not to mention the depiction of corruption and exploitation and rampant prostitution, but there's a warmth and sympathy under the deadpan bite of the satire. These refugees from the American Dream are as hopeless as Saipan's economy, but their failures are utterly and lovably human. For all of them, there's no place like home -- meaning there's no such place as home. They are eternally lost in an impossible world, and yet they each find their brief, vanishing moments of belonging and epiphany in the most unexpected places.

It makes me homesick, as I sit here at home. I visited Saipan once as a child and have been through the airport once since then -- on a wee-hours flight from Guam that features prominently in the novel. Saipan has always struck me as completely different from Yap, yet Kluge's descriptions make it sound very similar: the crotons and pandanas, the infusion of Asian food, the tuba (local palm wine), the abandoned half-built buildings, the old Japanese houses built by the previous colonial power in the islands, the islanders with their simultaneous hospitality and secrecy, the ubiquitous Filipinos. Saipan has tried to follow its fellow Mariana Island, Guam, in becoming an intimate, if invisible, part of America, but the assimilation is still incomplete. We hold it in reserve in case we need to retreat from our military bases on Okinawa, yet the CNMI is just another often-forgotten chip in a vast power-poker game. Kluge sees the paradoxes in the situation, and he finds the American spirit -- the idealistic scam artist -- reflected therein. The Edge of Paradise has long been a favorite book about Micronesia, and this novel immediately joins that pantheon.

1968 In a bunker on Saipan
This is me in an old Japanese bunker on Saipan in 1968, when Kluge would still have been serving in the Peace Corps out there

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
holyoutlaw
Dec. 21st, 2013 11:21 pm (UTC)
Interesting post.

Have you ever been to Fiji? One of our art car friends is living there for a couple years, on a library assignment.
randy_byers
Dec. 21st, 2013 11:37 pm (UTC)
Nope, never been there.
gerisullivan
Dec. 22nd, 2013 02:03 am (UTC)
Yowser, that's some photo. Both books sound really interesting. I'm working on avoiding impulse purchases through Twelfth Night, but may well come back to them after that.
randy_byers
Dec. 22nd, 2013 06:53 pm (UTC)
I know the feeling. And one book always seems to lead to another. After I finished The Master Blaster (which I borrowed from my brother), I ordered Kluge's first novel, The Day That I Die, which is also set in Micronesia.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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