peteg's blog - noise - books - 2012 09 20 Kluge TheMasterBlaster

P. F. Kluge: The Master Blaster

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I picked this one up on the strength of a review in the New York Times. Titled Far-Off Island Where the American Dream Curdles, I expected to find an update on Hunter S. Thompson's state of Las Vegas, early 1970s. These days I guess it would be surprising if the American Dream is possible for anyone whose parents didn't buy it for them.

Saipan is, roughly put, a South-east Asian island where the locals got American passports in exchange for a military base. (Australians may be wondering how many marines we need to host in order to score a similar deal; perhaps it takes a carrier group.) Both the book and the review trade on the seemingly stagnant Saipan Sucks website and its slogan contest, which also has a scathing account of politics on the island. Geographically it is directly a long way east of the Philippines, and north of Papua New Guinea, quite near Guam.

There are five main characters, each recounting their part of the story in a cycle of chapters written in the first person. These three American men, singular American woman and Bangladeshi neo-slave are stereotyped would-be emigres who engage with the island and each other but not so much with the locals. The major native bloke, Big Ben, operates in the shadows and it remains unclear if he is anything more than an enforcer for island rentiers. The requisite dusting of sex and island romance is flagged from the early pages. It is not explained why the Chinese seamstresses can be rented by the hour (and by Bangladeshis, who are otherwise widely discriminated against). Things sort of fade away as realisation, necessity or deus ex machina set in.

Kluge ably captures why people fall in love with the island, and out of love with living there. I enjoyed it but felt let down by the promise of the spiky introduction for more cutting commentary ala Sarkhan et al. In an afterword Kluge divulges that he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Saipan in 1967-1969, which turns this into something of a Paul Theroux; however it is not clear that he speaks any language other than American.

I think the review in the Boston Globe is closer to the money.