Monday, February 4, 2013


At least three separate people, on three separate occasions, have recommended the works of Christopher Moore to me. Weird, quirky, fun, they said. Right up your proverbial alley.

I remembered seeing Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal on the new fiction shelf at the library, and I thought it sounded intriguing back then. (I do so enjoy irreverent explorations of religion.) So when it came time to pick my next book, I set about tracking down Lamb.

But Half-priced Books didn’t have it. Indy Reads Book didn’t have it. The library had a waiting list in double digits. And I didn’t (don’t) have the money to risk paying full-price on a book by an untried author.

So I picked up Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings from the library instead. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The Story — Four and a half out of five humpbacks

Fluke is divided into three sections, the first of which, in my opinion, is designed to lure the reader into interesting, well-researched, and otherwise familiar (literarily speaking) territory. Like following a path through the woods. The story revolves around Nate Quinn, a world-renowned but self-conscious marine biologist who has devoted his life to studying whale songs. He is joined by his research assistant Amy Earhart, who is sexy, snarky, knowledgeable, and entirely too young for Nate. (In other words, the perfect woman.)

The weirdness begins early in the novel, when Nate witnesses a breeching humpback whale that has some strange markings on his flukes — the twin “wings” of a whale’s tail. Almost immediately, strange things start to happen. There’s a ransacked lab, a sunken boat, and the appearance of a blond-haired Rasta boy from New Jersey.

Moore weaves an impressive amount of actual biological research through the story as the mysteries mount. (If you’ve read Neal Stephenson’s Zodiac, it’s right along those lines, both in the story and the presentation.) You’ll learn something you didn’t know before you started reading this book, including more than you want to know about whale penises.

Cover of
Cover via Amazon
But then the first section wraps up in an very unexpected way. The path through the woods leads to a clearing, and there, in the center, is a cottage made entirely of candy.

From the first sentence of the third section of Fluke, my immediate reaction was a gape-mouthed WTF?!

With extra F.

But in a good way.

The story veers way off the expected course. The witch’s candy house opens to reveal that it’s not a house at all, but a giant whale, and you’re inside it. Christopher Moore reimagines the entire ocean ecosystem to suit his new, twisted version of marine evolution and introduces his science-minded protagonist into it. One of the joys of this story is experiencing this new world through a character who is as ignorant of it as we are. Everything that is new to us is new to him, too.

I don’t want to give away too much of what happens, and giving away any interesting details would be giving away too much. I’ll give you this, though: The human race might be in danger of extinction, and the protagonist might try to save it. And that humpback whale might get the pastrami on rye he’s been obsessing over.

Also, Moore gives us a happy ending. Endings, really. The last chapter of Fluke will have you cheering for Nate Quinn and wishing that the real world was more like Moore’s fictional one.

The Writing — Four out of five humpbacks

Moore’s writing style is laid back. This isn’t Dickens, or Austen, or Pynchon. It’s imminently and easily readable, a fun little book for reading on an airplane or stretched out on a beach or when you’re laid up in bed with the flu. Not that he dumbs down the vocabulary; he just doesn’t dress up his prose.

In fact, a lot of technical vocabulary is thrown around in Fluke, but Moore does a wonderful job of balancing explanation with the movement of the story. (Note to writers: Introducing a character who, like the reader, doesn’t know all the technical jargon makes the explanations seem quite natural to the action. Having that character almost permanently stoned, as Moore does, just makes it more fun.)

But there were two things that kept me from awarding this novel a higher rating. First, the book could use one more proofreading pass. I saw no major problems, but there were a few dropped articles and misspelled words, especially toward the end.

Second, Moore uses one humor technique too many times. The joke is simply this: Have a character say exactly what he’s thinking. It looks like this:
Cielle stood and gathered up her parcels. “Let’s go, Nate. I’m taking you back to your apartment.”

Nate still had a couple bites of his sandwich left. “Hey, I’ve still got a couple bites of my sandwich left,” he said. (219)
The first few times, it was funny. Quirky. But then, as the joke was repeated, it lost its zing.

All told, a great book. Moore does a wonderful job of building mystery and suspense and craziness and then paying off big-time at the end.

Who Should Read Fluke

  • People who enjoy the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, or early Neal Stephenson.
  • Anyone looking for a good read on the beach, on a cruise, or particularly on a Hawaiian vacation.
  • People who worry about what we humans are doing to the oceans.
  • Oceanographers, marine biologists, aquarium staff, and sushi lovers.
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