It’s a rare first novel that endures for more than a few years. Not all that long after publication, even if fortune smiles with a few friendly reviews and sales, it’s off to the 99 cent bin at Goodwill and finally to the pulping mill for recycling.
So I am pleased to report that P.F. Kluge’s first novel, “The Day That I Die” at age 42 and set in Palau, Guam, Saipan and Tinian, remains worth a first or re-read. It’s still in print and there’s even a $3.99 edition from Amazon if your Kindle batteries are charged up.
Paul Frederick Kluge, as he was known to his mom and dad, first showed up on Saipan in 1967 as a Peace Corps volunteer. While other volunteers were attempting to teach the economics of tropical agriculture to farmers and performing other such basic chores throughout Micronesia, Kluge was toiling in the air conditioned halls of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands on Saipan’s Capitol Hill, editing the Micronesian Reporter quarterly magazine and rubbing elbows with the future leaders of Micronesia.
It had to be a much better assignment than being drafted to fight in the then on-going Vietnam War.
As his novel makes clear, Kluge was able to make the best of his contacts and travels in the region back then. It’s like the perspective of a general, who is able to grasp the big picture of a battle, while an infantryman sees only the blood and death for a few yards around him.
Kluge’s novel starts not with a general, but with retired Marine colonel “Red” Elwell, a World War II hero, who is mysteriously murdered at night in the jungles of Pelileu by a band of men with bayonets. Pelileu was of course the scene of bloody fighting during the war and many of its hundreds of caves were blown up and sealed with Japanese fighters inside.
Who were the killers and what was their motivation?
Kluge assembles quite a cast of characters around the effort to answer this question. He also takes advantage of his obvious expert knowledge of the divides between Peace Corps volunteers, civilian American government officials and the U.S. military, three groups often at cross-purposes on the future direction of Micronesia during the 1960s and 70s.
Into this volatile situation plunges a thinly disguised New Yorker magazine writer, Marshall Booker (Gotham Magazine) hoping to grind out brilliant copy by solving the mystery. He’s abetted by Major Beckman, who lets him tag along with the marines probing the Pelileu caves in search of the killers.
And there’s Merle Atkinson, a demolition clearance expert, clearly based on the real life Steve Aiken, who is well known to this day on Saipan for his work in clearing excess World War II ammunition and ordnance from the Marpi region in the late 1960s. To say that Atkinson, as portrayed by Kluge, is a colorful character is to understate. Lots of booze and women surround Atkinson, who also does a brisk side business in selling World War II remains of their countrymen to hovering Japanese bonehunters. Whenever Atkinson appears in the book, you can almost hear a few banjo chords from “Deliverance” in the background.
Since the subtitle of Kluge’s book is “A Novel of Suspense,” I don’t want to spoil it for readers, but things don’t end particularly well for some of the parties other than Colonel Elwell. Based on this first performance, it’s not surprising that Kluge has been teaching creative writing for many years at Kenyon College in Ohio.
On the other hand, Kluge hasn’t forgotten his Peace Corps days. His 2012 novel “The Master Blaster” is set on Saipan and features readily recognizable long term residents of the island. If you happened to live on Saipan in the 1990s, the non-fiction “The Edge of Paradise: America in Micronesia” will also ring a few bells.
Bruce Lloyd is a veteran journalist, who has been a longtime resident of Guam and Saipan. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org