A chain of islands in the middle of the Pacific provides the backdrop for Tanner’s (From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story, 2012, etc.) comic exploration of expatriate life and its consequences.
In the 1950s, the U.S. used the Marshall Islands as a test site for nuclear bombs. Fifty years later, the Americans in Tanner’s breezy tale are more self-destructive than anything, though their imprint on the island nation is hardly a net positive. For better or worse, they stick mostly to American-dominated Kwajalein, which “looks like a 1950s cinderblock beach town gone to seed” and houses the U.S. personnel who study missile defense at the nearby Ronald Reagan Test Site. Among the employees there is Cooper, who sails all the way from California for his new job but manages to lose a leg in the process. Alison, the art teacher at the Kwajalein high school, isn’t much better off: she’s coping with her husband’s recent drowning, mostly by drinking her way through lunch. Then there’s Art, a bedraggled former Peace Corps volunteer who married a native and now serves as “Cultural Liaison” to the expat community, explaining Marshallese customs while lobbing rhetorical grenades at American culture from afar. Meanwhile, the only Marshallese protagonist, Jeton, pines for his American girlfriend, Nora, who's preparing to return to the U.S. for college. Marshallese are banned from Kwajalein after nightfall, and Jeton’s attempt to see Nora before she goes proves a crucial turning point in the plot. The themes here are major—global warming, imperialism, America’s role in the world (the story is set soon after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal). But Tanner displays a light touch, favoring snappy dialogue over didacticism. The result is winning, though for some the novel may feel just a touch too lighthearted: at various points characters confront everything from alcoholism to catastrophic weather to sharks, but one gets the sense early on that, for the four major players, all will (mostly) work out in the end.
A literary beach read that will keep you thinking after the vacation’s over.