Tuesday, March 27, 2012

P.F. Kluge's Novel of Saipan, THE MASTER BLASTER, in The New York Times

P.F. Kluge's new novel The Master Blaster was reviewed by Janet Maslin in The New York Times yesterday:

A Far-Off Island Where the American Dream Curdles

The main character in P. F. Kluge’s stingingly funny new novel, “The Master Blaster,” isn’t a person. It’s a location: Saipan, a very small island with a big, bizarre place in history. Saipan is one of the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific, north of the Solomons and west of the Marshalls. It was a site of brutal fighting during World War II, grimly commemorated by one cliff nicknamed Suicide and another called Banzai. Its neighbor is Tinian, the island from which the Enola Gay took off to bomb Hiroshima.

When Saipan became a United States Commonwealth in 1978, it took on a different kind of strategic advantage. The island was conveniently exempted from usual American tariffs, the minimum wage and immigration laws. And up sprung factories, exploiting low-paid immigrant workers. Cheap clothing manufactured there could be labeled “Made in the U.S.A.,” and was; tourism and the sex trade also thrived. “The Master Blaster” begins in 2005, when the Saipan boom had begun to go bust.

The Master Blaster is a mysterious figure who runs a Saipan-disparaging Web site that runs a contest. (Look it up. There really is one.) The goal is to provide a slogan for Saipan, and the best of many entries is this: “It’s not the heat, it’s the cupidity.” A runner-up: “The Other West Virginia.”

Mr. Kluge, who went to Saipan as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1967 and has made repeated visits ever since, makes a fine alter ego out of the Master Blaster. Both the writer and his troublemaking character are seasoned ironists, expert connoisseurs of corruption.

In a book that is a long, bewitching love letter to an utterly maddening place, Mr. Kluge introduces a group of Saipan newcomers who don’t yet know the lay of the land. They arrive on the same plane and make a bet about who will stay longest. Least likely to win this bet is George Griffin, a travel writer who has appeared in Mr. Kluge’s fiction before. George is the best kind of hack: a smart one, able to understand lousy writing even as he cranks it out. George caters glibly to the kinds of travelers who leave home “picturing the moment they drive back up the driveway, pronouncing that there’s no place like home.”

He regards his readers with a beguiling blend of cynicism and affection, just as Mr. Kluge sees Saipan. “My people,” George muses to himself. “They traveled scared, which somehow made them braver than the cocky adventurers who preceded them. They wrote postcards, not journals. They worried about what they ate. They tipped too much or too little because they never figured out the monkey bucks. Not a word of language, not a scrap of history, no more guidance than what I provided. God love them! It took guts to go out into the world without a clue.”

Also on the plane is Stephanie Warner, an academic recruited for a college on Saipan. (What does it say about this college, she wonders, that its only advance meeting with her was conducted at the food court in a mall in Honolulu?) Then there’s Mel Brodie, a real estate developer dispatched by Washington’s most powerful lobbyist, nicknamed Maximum Lou. (He is a stand-in for Jack Abramoff, whose sticky fingers also reached as far as Saipan.) Last and least, status-wise, is Khan, a laborer from Bangladesh who will wind up in virtual slavery.

One site visited by Khan’s work crew sounds like the abandoned home of Larry Hillblom, the runaway billionaire who indulged his every perverse whim on Saipan until he disappeared in a small plane that took off from there. In the likely event that “The Master Blaster” prompts further curiosity about this part of the world, read James D. Scurlock’s nonfiction “King Larry” too.

“The Master Blaster” coalesces as the main characters explore the island and one another. Without a heavy hand Mr. Kluge makes their paths plausibly collide. George starts teaching at Stephanie’s school. Mel gets the idea of building a retirement home for Americans with the moniker “Patriot’s Rest.” But he does not understand exactly what land rights on Saipan entail. “You would need a genealogist, a DNA expert, a local historian, you’d need a subpoena and a syringe of sodium pentothal to be absolutely sure about a title search,” Mr. Kluge explains.

That voice — jaundiced, seasoned, amused and vibrant as it is — gives “The Master Blaster” added allure. This is not a young man’s book; it’s the work of a writer who has seen the world, literally and figuratively, for a long time. “The Master Blaster” is tinged with thoughts of mortality, but they are offset by a bon vivant’s occasional flash of gratitude and beauty. When George thinks about clichés and observes that “what drum solos were for rock concerts, what dream sequences were for movies, sunsets were in nature.” But he also says that “a sunset, well watched,” lasts as long as a whole feature film.

Of course this story has a deeply somber side. Saipan’s history as a bloody battleground is examined, most memorably when a visiting congressman decides to tour the caves where Japanese soldiers were trapped. Detritus left behind by the soldiers gives that scene gravitas, but the book also notes darkly that if the congressman were a senator, more aides would have been willing to follow him into these tombs. The scene is capped by one devastating detail, totally unexpected, that will change the congressman’s self-image forever.

Mr. Kluge uses a shrewd local fixer called Big Ben to comment on the caves’ import too. “Until Saipan, the Japanese tried to stop the Americans on the beaches,” he says. But the Japanese yielded and retreated for this fight and let the invading Americans gain ground. “It’s the way it is on the islands,” Big Ben says. “Let them land, settle in, raise their flag ...”

And then, when the intruders are entrenched? “You cannot prevent their coming,” Big Ben says. “There’s no way. But you can affect — how to put it? — the quality of their stay.”

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