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Turning Samoan

by Dennis Chute

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that while a serious writer may spin an entire career’s worth of books out of one Big Idea, comic writers must forever be coming up with fresh jokes. He also wrote that anyone looking for the great writers of the future should forget the English Lit and Creative Writing departments and check the chemistry labs. Alberta author Dennis Chute’s first novel, Turning Samoan, seems to have at least one half-decent joke – often more than one, and often more than half-decent – on every page. And Chute, at least according to his bio, holds a PhD in botanical medicine and has worked in a number of odd jobs, including private investigator and tick physiologist.

The struggle to create one’s own identity is at the heart of this swift-moving scam novel. The book’s central relationship is between Maria, a fortune-telling gypsy magician and scam artist, and Willie, an enormous, half-English, half-Samoan private detective who also happens to be a Twain scholar. In Willie, and especially in his Samoan-ness, Maria sees a chance to escape her brutish husband, Draj, and his family. As soon as this relationship is underway, Chute throws in an eccentric collector of gruesome oddities, a mysterious gambler named Average Bob, and JFK’s missing brain.

It is to Chute’s credit that once the shock of this initial left turn wears off, none of the ensuing adventures seem too outrageous. The book rarely descends into mere farce, as Chute plays the escalating intrigue off of Willie and Maria’s ever-more-complex relationship. It is Chute’s patience and sense of comic timing that makes Turning Samoan such a pleasure. The prose never insists upon being applauded for its own cleverness, and the humour is as light as a feather, if occasionally smutty. Though the endless comic set-ups begin to wear by the book’s second half, and the climax and epilogue seem rushed, Turning Samoan is as strong, smart, and successful as its two main characters.