Through a Novelist's Eyes

Novelist John Enright set all of the books in his popular Jungle Beat Mystery series in Samoa. The reader sees the islands through the eyes of his protagonist, Det. Sgt. Apelu Soifua of the American Samoa Dept. of Public Safety. Enright lived on Tutuila for 26 years and knew all the islands well. Although the books are set a quarter of a century ago, their locations have little changed.

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John Enright
John Enright
Your Guide - John Enright
Your Guide - John Enright

John Enright was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1945. After serving stints in semi-pro baseball and the Lackawanna steel mills, he earned his degree from City College of New York while working full-time at Fortune, Time, and Newsweek magazines. He later completed a master’s degree in folklore at UC-Berkeley, before devoting the 1970s to the publishing industry in New York, San Francisco, and Hong Kong. In 1981, he left the United States to teach at the American Samoa Community College and spent the next twenty-six years living on the islands of the South Pacific. Over the past four decades, his essays, articles, short stories, and poems have appeared in more than seventy books, anthologies, journals, periodicals, and online magazines. His collection of poems from Samoa, 14 Degrees South, won the University of the South Pacific Press’s inaugural International Literature Competition. Today, he and his wife, ceramicist Connie Payne, live in Jamestown, Rhode Island.  Find the books at:

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Pago Pago Airport

When Apelu was a boy, the Pan Am plane from Honolulu would arrive one night a week at Pago Pago International Airport, on the ocean side of the Tafuna Plain where the lava flow and the sea had finally drawn a contested border of black rock, white breakers, and spray-spewing blowholes. Everyone on the island with an excuse to be at the airport would be there. Apelu and his buddies would meet in the bush at the far end of the runway where the plane would touch down to watch its flickering lights get closer and steadier. Because of the stiff trade wind at their backs, for the longest time they couldn’t hear the jet’s engines. Then they would feel the low roar rumbling inside them growing, and the wing lights would become blinding against the night. At a signal that no one gave but everyone answered they would all run out onto the runway to the space between the wide white vertical stripes that marked the start of the runway and the burned-rubber black patches that showed where the plane’s tires usually touched down. They would all lie down on their backs, feet toward the oncoming plane, hands folded casually behind their heads, to absorb the down thrust of the noise and the absolute power of that astoundingly huge palangi creation passing twenty feet above them.

(Pago Pago Tango, p. 18)

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Aiga Bus
Aiga Bus

Aiga Bus

At the golf course road Apelu caught an aiga bus headed toward town. Aiga busses were the sole means of public transportation in Samoa aside from taxi cabs. They were all privately owned and operated, and all hand-made–wooden bodies on truck chasses. They were pretty much the same in construction, if individual in their character and imaginative paint jobs. They had names like Titanic, Light on the Ocean, Spiderman, South of Pago Pago. One thing they all had in common was a sound system. At the driver’s left hand was always a pile of cassette music tapes and a tape deck haphazardly wired to invariably giant speakers. The sound systems all had only one volume setting–loud. Teenagers picked their busses by their soundtracks. The benches were unpadded wood. The windows were sheets of Plexiglas that slid up or down in wooden tracks, sometimes. The busses were always packed. After one bus wreck several years before, a palangi coroner had listed the fatalities’ cause of death as “death by splinters.”

While the exteriors of the busses were decorated with their distinctive names and spray-painted scenes related to them–or maybe a portrait of the owner’s baby daughter–the interior decor was pretty much the driver’s domain–flags, posters, decals, family photos, Xmas lights, bobbing-head animals, Last Supper paintings on black velvet, political bumper stickers, beer ads with rugby players, all variety of holiday trim. Apelu’s favorite was still the bus with the triptych of full-color posters above the front window–an effeminate Jesus showing his Sacred Heart flanked by Sylvester Stallone as a battered Rocky and war-blackened Rambo

(Fire Knife Dancing, P. 130f)

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Mt. Alava Ridge

Once upon a time this had been a road. Once a Cat tractor had bladed its way up this wavering ridgeline, crunching and flattening jungle and rock into a track wide enough for something with four-wheel drive to make the grade. But roads like this never survived more than a rainy season or two before they began to erode and vanish and the man-torn canopy began to re-knit like green scar tissue covering a wound. There were still parallel muddy ruts, mini streams that washed out together at low spots. Five minutes into their hike Apelu’s Adidas were so soaked through that he had given up pretending to stay dry and now sloshed on in one rut or another where the footing was better and the steep, slippery trackside slopes were farther away. Through gaps in the cliffside jungle to their right they could occasionally get glimpses of Pago Pago Bay fifteen hundred feet below them, its water blue-gray beneath the even grayer sky whose belly seemed held up by the surrounding green mountaintops.

(Pago Pago Tango, p. 1)

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For many years it was the only house out there, a house of elegant exile. The road to it was little more than a tract cut through the jungle over black lava ribs and down red mud hollows. The poles along the road carried power and phone lines just to that house. The house crouched on a black and barren cliff above the reefless sea that even in calm weather could dispatch rogue breakers into the cliff face with strength enough to raise a plume of spray ten meters high above it. In storms the mist was so thick that the house seemed submerged in an aerated sea.

But it was a strong house, built to be in just that place. Its sturdy rolled eaves suggested a wrestler’s slouched shoulders, always on the defensive. It hugged the contour of the land it held. No one else had ever thought to build there, at the margin of two inhospitalities–the choked jungle on a landscape of fractured volcanism behind and the kinetic and potential violence of the world’s largest ocean knocking at the front door. The jungle’s verge was guarded by thickets of sword-edged pandanus. The sea’s sole amenity here was its vista.

Apelu had been inside the house only once, maybe ten years before, to a lavish party on a sea-peaceful starry night. The hosts had hired a van to take their guests over the road in and out so that no one had to endanger their vehicles. Besides, there was nowhere to park there. The party had been for some visiting entertainers. He remembered a large, lantern-lit patio overlooking the star-lit black and white coastline–the black ever stationary, the white always in motion. It had been a good party. Servants kept glasses full. There was too much to eat. The entertainers entertained. He had been glad for the ride back out. He couldn’t have driven it.

(Fire Knife Dancing, p. 1)

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U.S. Naval Station Tutuila, Fagatogo Malae

He leaned against one of the cool cement pillars that supported the line of arches that formed the first-floor facade of the headquarters building. Each whitewashed pillar tapered upward from a two-foot-square base. The arches above them were wide and graceful, the veranda deep–“mission style” architecture. Apelu had learned that term from a tourist. The tourist was a professor of some sort. He had shown up one day when a cruise liner was visiting port and had disgorged all its gray-haired, pink-skinned day visitors to wander around downtown or take scenic bus tours. The professor was taking photographs of the headquarters building and had asked Apelu–still in uniform in those days–to stand beneath one of the arches, “to give scale and local color,” he’d said. Apelu hadn’t been sure he liked being referred to as “local color,” but you had to be nice to these people. They were like children, really: tentative, skitterish, defensive, and weak. There was a childlike innocence in their social ignorance and lack of courtesy. The professor went on about the building and its history. He had read about it in some book.

Apelu had known this building since he was a boy, walked past it, rode past it on buses, but he had never really thought about it. It was police headquarters, a place you didn’t want to see the inside of. It was one of those old white buildings downtown, like the courthouse or the customhouse. There was a bunch of similar old buildings–always run-down and in need of a coat of paint–around the parade grounds that had once been the center of the old naval station. They were just part of the ramshackle town of Fagatogo that fronted on the main dock on Pago Pago Bay. The professor told him that all those old buildings built by the US Navy were now part of a historic district that had been written up in some book. This building, for instance, was over ninety years old. It had been built by the all-Samoan Fita Fita Guard as their barracks and command post. Apelu knew about the Fita Fita Guard.

(Pago Pago Tango, p. 30)

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Naval Cemetery, Satala

Apelu slipped past the police guards now at the gate of the Marine Railway and started to walk back toward headquarters. The road ran along the water’s edge. A ways down the road the old naval cemetery climbed up the embankment on the inland side of the road. Apelu stopped, then crossed the road and walked up an unmowed path between the graves. Some were raised and rimmed with cut stone. Some had gravestones, some

just engraved slabs set in the weeds. Others were just piles of stones or coral slabs. Years before he had learned where Malua the Wildman’s grave was–a pile of rocks off at the very edge of the burial ground. He went there and sat on the grave for a while, watched the ambulance with the girl’s body speed back toward the hospital under full lights and siren, as if its passenger was in a hurry to get somewhere. There was something wrong about all of this.

(Fire Knife Dancing, p .98)

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Tisa's Barefoot Bar
Tisa's Barefoot Bar

“Candyman’s Cabana” (Tisa’s Barefoot Bar), Alega

Debra wanted to meet not at Lost Paradise but at another beach bar, this one on the eastern side of the island, a place called Candyman’s Cabana. Candyman’s humble establishment was perched atop pilings above a picturesque crescent-shaped beach

with saluting palm trees like ones you might see on South Seas travel posters or the cover of a travel magazine. There were no walls to the place, just an overhanging tin-and-thatch roof. Like most such places, its decor was flotsam and jetsam, what the ocean offered. The beach was long, clean, and pristine; but the reef here was one of the most treacherous on the island, with a murderous riptide that had sucked its share of delighted tourists and happy drunkards to sudden surprise endings. It was a beautiful spot, though.

Early afternoon on a weekday, there was no one seated in the bar. Apelu ordered and paid for a Steinlager, then walked down a set of steps to the beach. The tide was in and the surf was high. He walked at the broken-shell and coral-edge dance of the surf foam. Here every wave rewrote the truth of footprints and passages. The sea was the only significant thing. If, in some geographic experiment, he was to step off this beach and head straight south, he would hit nothing solid before stepping up on the edge of Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf five thousand miles away. At just about every compass point the Pacific expanded to such distances and more around this insignificant speck of green at the very peak of one of the world’s higher–if mainly submerged–mountains. The ocean’s message was always the same–your own total insignificance. It went beyond humbling; it reduced you to nothing.

(Pago Pago Tango, p. 123)

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The Dark Side, Atu’u

The dark side was what everybody called the east shore of Pago Pago Bay, where the cannery and most of the services that supported the cannery were located…. This was not a pretty part of the island. After Pago Pago was the village of Satala, with the oldest and loudest of the island’s two electrical generating plants on the mountainside of the road and a run-down ship repair yard on the bayside, then the totally swallowed-up village of Atu’u. Atu’u was the center of the dark side and a civic disaster by anyone’s standards. The bayside of the potholed road was solid with cannery buildings, truck loading docks, industrial chaos. Forklifts, driving backward because their loads of pallets and cans blocked all forward view, shared the main road with the buses and traffic…. On the mountainside of the road there was very little room before the sheer jungled walls of the collapsed caldera rose up a thousand feet into semi-perpetual mist. What flat space there was–and above that, chopped into the talus slope and face of the cliff–

was filled with a warren of chockablock buildings and alleyways that looked and teemed and smelled like any dockside slum in any impoverished Asian port. It wasn’t big, but it was intense. This short, half-mile stretch of road accounted for an inordinate amount of police business, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, even though they tried to ignore the place. Along the road there was a series of karaoke bars and Korean restaurants and stores with signs in Samoan and Korean. Back up the alleyways and above the bars were other, less advertised services. This was the place where the boys and girls on the island came when they wanted to play bad and live dangerously. This was the dark side. Apelu pulled his patrol car up onto the curb in a no-parking zone.

(Pago Pago Tango, p. 102f)

The Dead Don't Dance
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To'aga, Ofu

To’aga 1

The name To’aga referred to the entire narrow strip of bush and beach and reef  along the eastern end of the tiny island of Ofu. The road led at its eastern end to a two-lane bridge across a narrow channel to the neighboring island of Olosega. As usual, today Apelu had the road to himself, all three miles of it from his shack at Va`oto to the Olosega bridge, then back. No one had lived here in To`aga for generations. The spirits had driven all the living away. Maybe one or two old pickup trucks would rattle past him as he walked. Off to the south side of the road beyond a shallow strip of trees and bush was the beach and the reef and the ocean. On the north side of the road the green curtain of Le`olo Ridge rose abruptly to fifteen hundred feet. In places the distance between the cliff base and the beach was only a couple of hundred yards. It was too hot for birds today down here in the sun, but up in the shadow of the ridge he could see the ghost-white pairs of fairy terns and long-tailed tropic birds busy at what looked like play across the cliff face                                                                   

(The Dead Don’t Dance, p. 1)

To’aga 2

It was a gray morning. The bottom of the cloud sky had sunk to halfway down the face of Le`olo Ridge. Mist spies crept like fingers down the cliff’s crevices. The sand road was spotted with khaki-colored puddles. There were no birds. The only sound was of them walking, and even that sound seemed muffled, absorbed by the air, as if no noise was to be suffered here. Even the sea was silent. So was Nu`upo—no chatter, no chants.

 (The Dead Don’t Dance, p. 15)

Naval Dispensary. To’aga

Apelu waited on the concrete steps where the U.S. Navy dispensary had once stood in the center of To’aga. There were just the steps now and in the undergrowth behind him the remnants of concrete pedestals with rusted rebar sticking out of them like rotten teeth and a concrete water catchment tank in the process of being reclaimed by fichus. This was the site of the sole Western landmark to To`aga’s suprasensory powers. Some eighty years before, around twenty years after the U.S. Navy had claimed the islands, the Naval governor in Pago Pago had decided to put a medical dispensary in Ofu and Olosega, staffed by a palangi pharmacist’s mate and his wife. Of course, it was cheaper to build just one dispensary for both islands, situated halfway between the villages of Ofu and Olosega. Halfway between them was the old battleground beneath the mountain home of the oldest and most unpredictable ethereal creatures in all of the islands, To`aga. It would be just a short canoe ride across the channel for the Olosega people. So they built it there. Of course, no one from either Ofu or Olosega would go there. As if to draw attention to their stupidity the Navy had chosen a site adjacent to a set of graves whose stories took hours to tell. It didn’t work out. Almost immediately the pharmacist’s mate was complaining to his superiors back in Pago that invisible parties were occupying the place day and night, talking in loud Samoan voices and moving the furniture around. The capper came when the pharmacist’s wife was home alone one day and answered a knock at the dispensary door to face—as it were—a headless naked man. The Navy moved the dispensary into the safety of Ofu village.

 (The Dead Don’t Dance, p. 64)

Survey Markers, To’aga

The next day Apelu took Sanele out to To`aga, and they removed all the plastic survey markers and stakes from what Apelu believed to be the approach to their land. For the hell of it, they pulled up a bunch of other ones too. Then Sanele had the bright idea of moving the stakes around, so they put them back at different locations. They had fun.

Only about a tenth of the Territory’s land had yet been surveyed in a hundred years of surveyors being around. Something about straight lines drawn on a map pretending to be a depiction of—no, a dictation of—terrestrial reality just couldn’t find a foothold in the Samoan mindset. The dictionary definition for the Samoan word to jostle—feu`ua`i—was to move backwards and forwards, as a boundary. That’s what edges were meant to do—keep moving, be alive. Having land surveyed was breaking an old taboo, a sin of pride against the community, an assumption that somehow you could stop time and space and screw up everyone else’s freedom and natural flow. Apelu took one of the stakes with its plastic ribbon and stuck it into a crack in the reef a dozen yards off shore.                                                                

 (The Dead Don’t Dance, p. 90)