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The Day That I Die by P.F. Kluge

the day that i dieP.F. Kluge has written two of the best books about Micronesia I've ever read. The Edge of Paradise is a non-fiction account of the current state of all the Micronesian islands and their conflicted relationship with the US circa 1993. The Master Blaster, published in 2012, is a novel set mostly on Saipan, with a few scenes on Guam, and concerns an anonymous blogger who exposes political corruption on the island that's largely driven by the American empire. Kluge served in the Peace Corps on Saipan in the late '60s, around the same time my family was living on Yap, and his knowledge of the islands is personal. He does a great job of capturing the nuances and contradiction of life at the margins of the American empire.

His first novel, The Day That I Die, is also set in Micronesia, but this time mostly on the island that at the time the book was published in 1976 was still called Palau but which is now known as Belau. It's not as successful as the other two books, but it still deftly captures the flavor of the islands. While The Master Blaster revolves around the mystery of the anonymous blogger's identity, The Day That I Die is a more traditional murder mystery. An American marine returns to the Palauan island of Peleliu, which was the site of one of the bitterest fights of the American campaign in the Pacific in WWII. The ex-marine is murdered, and the mystery is who killed him.

Kluge gathers his usual cast of eccentric Americans and Micronesians, and their stories are the cracked history of the islands and the American takeover after WWII. The problem I had with the novel is that it felt too glib. I think it's trying to be a satire of human pretension and self-delusion, but the satire often feels a little mean and affected. In his later books Kluge's depiction of human foibles is informed with more compassion and insight. Here everybody is more or less a self-serving jerk or whore of some kind, and they become caricatures.

Still, Kluge's descriptions of landscapes, character, and the socioeconomics of the islands is already sharp. He feels Micronesia in his bones, and his portraits of American drifters and grifters, Micronesian radicals, and mournful Japanese bonehunters point to the greater accomplishments ahead. On his website Kluge says that the novel was inspired by Lee Marvin, whom he guided around Saipan when Marvin was in Micronesia filming Hell in the Pacific in 1967. (Marvin was wounded in the Marine invasion of Saipan in 1942.) He also says it was optioned by Robert Aldrich to be filmed, and it's possible that the novel would have been a good match for Aldrich's bilious outlook. But nothing came of it, and it probably says something that, from what I can tell, The Day That I Die has never been reprinted.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 8th, 2015 06:30 am (UTC)
One of those things I know little about, but find intriguing. I may look for this.
Mar. 8th, 2015 04:13 pm (UTC)
I would recommend The Edge of Paradise over this one as a first look at Micronesia. It would probably make a pretty good introduction to the topic.
Mar. 16th, 2015 03:20 pm (UTC)
thanks for a perceptive review of my long ago first novel. my most recent novel, the master blaster, is set on saipan as well. i think you'll like it. it's clear that the island has sunk a hook which i cannot shake! best, p.f. kluge
Mar. 16th, 2015 03:44 pm (UTC)
Thank you for stopping by! In fact, I liked The Master Blaster so much that I read it twice in a row, back to back. There's a link to my review of it above. I'm interested in your other novels as well.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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