Book Review: Kilometer 99

Last Update: 6/4/2014 10:35 PM

By Meg Carter

Tyler McMahon served in El Salvador in 2001, the year two major earthquakes devastated the country on January 13th and February 13th. His novel, Kilometer 99, captures the moral confusion, fear, physical and emotional disruption of that month through the eyes of a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Malia, a 23 year old of mixed Hawai’ian and Japanese-American descent, survives the first earthquake only to discover that her project, a nearly-complete gravity-flow aqueduct, is destroyed. Her boyfriend Ben, a fellow PCV and surfing partner, convinces her they should cut their losses. They plan to ET, cash out their return airfare, buy a jeep, and set off on a surfing tour of Latin America. Malia vacillates, in a dance with the constant aftershocks that unsettle the country.

McMahon alternates the immediacy of Malia’s first-person present tense narration with flashbacks revealing El Salvador’s context: past US economic and colonial interests, a Civil War marked by the brutality of counterinsurgency soldiers taught at the CIA’s School of the Americas, the violent Mara Salvatrucha gang, Colombia’s drug trafficking along the western coast, crack cocaine addictions at idyllic surfing points, and the fatalism of El Salvador’s majority Catholic population. Although Malia’s voice dominates, her flashbacks provide insight into Ben and two other PCVs, Courtney and Alex, who act as counterpoints in
Malia’s moral universe. McMahon’s narrative technique gives the impression of an autobiography, even though it’s written from a female perspective.

K 99 is shot through with vivid details underscoring ethical questions of free will, perfectibility, the purpose of charity and nature of humanity. Centering on the town of La Libertad (freedom) where Malia and Ben escape for surfing weekends, the novel explores the extent of Salvadoran and American freedom of choice. In La Libertad people are known not by their real names but by cartoon nicknames. Malia becomes Chinita (little Chinese girl), emphasizing ethnicity and physical frailty over her engineering expertise, surfing skills and strength of character. An MS13 gangster tattoos ‘Pardon Me Mother’ across his forehead. Along with aid workers, profiteers arrive from the US to purchase land from squatters whose homes were destroyed. The perfect surf off La Libertad begs for development.

A landslide paints a muddy brown ribbon down the center of a sparkling new white subdivision, perilously constructed on a hillside. Elsewhere, earthquake devastation appears random until Malia realizes houses that crumbled were only apparently built of brick, but actually bamboo and mud structures coated with a veneer of cement. A legendary monkey-faced baby prophesies more devastation for February 13th.

PCVs who struggled with their development projects suddenly flourish in humanitarian aid, while aid recipients cut mattresses in half or riot over drugs, smashing precious vials of serum.  Surfing itself is a metaphor for life. If life in the present moment trumps living for the future, it requires different and constantly changing decisions.

Join us at Jayma Brown’s house in Richmond at 7pm on Tuesday, June 24th to meet Tyler McMahon and hear him read from his newest novel. K 99 is available for pre-order on his website:

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

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