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A Masterful Tale Of A Far-off Island

In P.F. Kluge’s new novel, The Master Blaster (Overlook Press, $26.95), the title character runs a website devoted to exposing corruption on the western edge of the American empire: Saipan. He’s been running a slogan contest. Recent entries include “Where America’s Nightmares Begin,” “Warning! Turn Back Now,” “The Other West Virginia,” “The Ultimate Kleptocracy,” “Where All Things Suck” and “It’s Not the Heat It’s the Cupidity.”

Saipan can disappoint. Yet the Master Blaster has lived there for 40 years, a victim of “the dream of islands,” that still brought “… shrewd men and women, shark-eyed businessmen, accomplished professionals” in search of “a simple, deep life in a small, far place. Romantics and predators, they kept showing up, trying their luck” on Saipan, “where *%(@! happened on an island that was the tag end of the tide of Manifest Destiny that had rolled across America, inhaled Alaska and Hawaii, Guam and Samoa, and finally … wearily … embraced Saipan, Tinian and the rest of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas.”

Kluge’s romantics and predators include George Griffin, a travel writer; Stephanie Warner, an ambitious, on-the-verge-of-a-divorce professor who interviews for a job at the College of the Islands; Mel Brodie, an entrepreneur and son of a World War II hero of the Pacific war; and Khan, one of Bangladesh’s “army of overseas workers” who “fight a war (against hunger) that it cannot win.”

All, save Khan and his three fellow Bangladeshis, are forced to leave. They prove the most interesting of the major characters. Muslims all, on their first night in Saipan they find themselves quartered in an abandoned building. They smell animals and discover they’re sleeping beside a pig sty.

“Go anywhere,” says one of them, “go to rich places, beautiful places, and you can always find a place like this, where they put the slaves. Go to Saudi Arabia, go to Singapore, it’s all the same. Away from the wide streets, the homes and stores and schools. … Away from them … there’s always a place they put us. Does a rich man have a toilet? Does a restaurant make garbage? That’s us. That’s where we live. That’s how we live. With the pigs.”

But The Master Blaster doesn’t draw its strength from its characters. It comes from the author’s remarkable eye. Kluge first went to Saipan in 1967 as a Peace Corps volunteer. As a novelist, journalist, travel writer, and a man haunted by the place and its people, he has returned repeatedly. He’s seen Saipan evolve from sleepy American outpost of an empire where “everyone knew, or sort of knew each other” to a go-go tax haven of luxury tourist hotels, massage parlors and factories whose products could carry the label “Made in America” while paying sweatshop wages.

Saipan’s longtime residents watched what their decision to become part of the United States had wrought. They took the outsiders’ money, but they held onto their land and they dealt. Thus the “cupidity.”

Or, as The Master Blaster explains it, “Until Saipan, the Japanese tried to stop the Americans on the beaches … and were slaughtered. On Saipan they yielded the beaches, they fought inland, in the mountains, the caves, the jungle … Of course, they were doomed. But they weren’t wrong. It’s the way it is on islands. Let them land, settle in, raise their flag … invest. … You cannot prevent their coming. There’s no way. But you can affect … the quality of their stay.”