Guest Review By Lanie Tankard
The Master Blaster by P.F. Kluge. Overlook Press/Peter Mayer, 304 pp.
When fiction and nonfiction meet up, consideration of the resulting technique can be enlightening for anyone working in words. Journalist P.F. Kluge, writer in residence at Kenyon College, has combined in an intriguing way these two seemingly polar opposites in his new novel about an island.
Island. That word usually conjures up the image of a palm-fronded speck surrounded by water—tranquil and carefree. In The Master Blaster, however, Kluge paints a different portrait of one island: Saipan, capital of the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Combining personal experience with superb writing, he constructs a shrewd plot set on an often-overlooked but increasingly significant location.
Many of Kluge’s previous ten books were set on Pacific islands. In his eleventh work, Kluge crafts a tale of three US visitors who arrive on the same plane—a professor, a travel writer, and an entrepreneur—plus a laborer from Bangladesh. (The travel writer, George Griffin, had roles in two of Kluge’s earlier novels and bears a strong resemblance to the author, perhaps existing as a verbal avatar.) Each character embodies an outside force affecting Saipan: education, tourism, economic development, and cheap labor/immigration. To this cast, Kluge adds the Master Blaster, a secret town crier using the Internet to publicize wrongdoings on the island.
Reminiscent of the noir genre, the novel in its cynicism suggests danger around the next corner. And violence is definitely there, despite the beauty that’s a backdrop for the bleakness. Yet the entire tale is rendered with vitality and ingenious humor.
Chapters alternate voices, with preceding events outlined from a new angle by the next character. This technique moves the storyline along in an appealing way. Kluge weaves in history, geography, botany, anthropology, and biology as stories within a story.
A former Peace Corps volunteer on Saipan, he was part of a 1960s “mass media program” in what was then the United Nations Trust Territory of Micronesia, administered by the United States after World War II. Saipan was first colonized by Spain, which sold the island to Germany, which lost it to Japan in World War I.
The UN trusteeship of the “sea of small islands” dissolved in varying degrees among the six Micronesian districts about forty years after it began. CNMI elected its first delegate to the US House of Representatives in 2008, who was reelected in 2010. Delegates do not vote in the full House, but can vote in committees.
US presidential candidates now pick up convention delegates from CNMI. Familiar names like Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay both made headlines concerning Saipan. CNMI’s immigration policy came under scrutiny, but has undergone transformation. Many closets around the world, however, likely still hold garments made in former sweatshops there. (Check your labels.) Kluge weaves all these issues and more into The Master Blaster, a book closer to true life than one could ever imagine.
Many readers might have difficulty locating the novel’s setting on a globe—even his publisher, as the dust jacket places the story in “the wide expanse of the South Pacific.” Saipan couldn’t be more NXNW. The far-flung nature of these North Pacific islands has always been a difficulty for Micronesia. If you mashed all 2,000+ of them together like Play-Doh, you’d end up with a landmass smaller than the smallest US state of Rhode Island, yet they’re strewn like marbles across a vast ocean area larger than the continental United States.
Kluge arrived in Micronesia shortly after the US Department of the Interior and the military opened the shutters. For twenty-five years after WW II, the atolls and lagoons sat untouched, the detritus of war rusting in the backyards of people who had long called the islands “home.” Anyone who was there in those early years left profoundly affected for life by the experience.
The title of the novel seems to pay homage to Stevie Wonder’s plea for peace in his song “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” from Hotter Than July: “They want us to join their fighting, But our answer today, Is to let all our worries, Like the breeze through our fingers slip away. . . . We’re in the middle of the makin’s of the master blaster jammin’.” Two of the biggest blasters ever, Fat Man and Little Boy, flew to Japan from Tinian, Saipan’s neighbor. Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, was the site of atomic weapons tests.
The Master Blaster of Kluge’s novel is modeled after an actual blogger. Giving the website would be taking away part of the fun of traveling deeper and deeper into the Google labyrinth after reading the book to figure out just what’s going on. The Blaster is a social conscience.
Yet Kluge spares neither side in this morality play. His intelligent fusion of narrators from past literature about islands and colonies is splendid. Using a disembodied voice speaking offstage via the Internet, Kluge’s Master Blaster resembles the Remittance Man from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, as well as the anonymous narrator in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and both the Master and the narrator in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae.
The title plays on film as well. In the third Mad Max movie, Beyond Thunderdrome, Master Blaster is two people: tiny Master carried by his large bodyguard, Blaster. The name draws symbolism even from sports. “Master Blaster” is the nickname of Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, batsman superhero. Such references are relevant to Kluge’s thesis.
Saipan is part of America, yet the distance from Saipan to Shanghai is one-third the distance from Saipan to Seattle. Kluge’s characters portray the location confusion, offering astute commentary through dialogue. One asks, “’It is America? This place?’” Another observes Saipan is “not real America,” while someone else says, “It’s a small place. It’s far away. Nobody cares.”
Readers sense themes: “A place belongs to people who love it….Could they go back to what they were?…Our history belongs to outsiders….The whole world comes here and we go nowhere….But there was no stopping America.”
Kluge returns to a powerful and poetic precept he published as editor of the Micronesian Reporter way back in 1969: “…it occurred to me that America’s opportunity to do right in the Trust Territory is immense, but if it should be impossible to do right there exists another possibility almost as great: not to do wrong.” He has held fast to this tenet over the years in various works, expressing perhaps its most clever articulation here. Even poor editing and proofreading couldn’t mar The Master Blaster. It’s an ingenious novel with global lessons.
George Gordon, Lord Byron, may have said it best in his poem Don Juan:
‘Tis strange,—but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction; if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!
How differently the world would men behold!
How oft would vice and virtue places change!
The new world would be nothing to the old,
If some Columbus of the moral seas
Would show mankind their souls’ antipodes.
Plus, reading The Master Blaster is simply lots of fun. Figuring out how Kluge injected journalistic literature with humor to create biting editorial commentary just might make you approach your keyboard with a whole new frame of mind.
Kudos to Kluge!
Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. Tankard has taught English in Micronesia.