On the dust jacket of Pauls Toutonghi's Evel Knievel Days, the viewer is faced with a visual conundrum: two pyramids and a palm tree, beneath which is reflected two Montana peaks and a pine tree. It is an impeccable metaphor for the book's many multiculturally symbolic tropes. The author's second novel is a trip through Montana history, Middle Eastern cuisine and the crises of growing up in exile from your heritage. "This is what it feels like to be half of something," he writes. "You're never truly anything."
Beginning with the lead-up to Butte's annual Evel Knievel Days (a marathon of motorcycle stuntsmanship) and ending with the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the book is narrated by Khosi Saqr, a museum guide at Butte's Copper King Mansion (his great-great grandfather was copper baron William Andrews Clark), where he is driven by OCD proclivities. Khosi happens to be in love with his engaged friend, Natasha, while caring for his Wilson's disease-suffering mother, Amy, and contemplating where his twenty-something life is headed. When a stranger who might be his absent Egyptian father starts loitering around Khosi's workplace and then disappears, Khosi's ordered life quickly unwinds, and he journeys to Cairo in search of his disappearing parent and, ultimately, his identity.
Toutonghi keeps Evel Knievel Days light and chatty, employing some Eggers-esque tangents to great effect: a recipe for hashish-infused crème brûlée, the diagram of the spot where Khosi's father touches his hand. Precious without being maudlin, the novel tackles the themes of romantic love, familial love and love of food with deftness and humor. From Amy's strident devotion to her son to the ambivalent likability of Khosi's fathera gambling addict involved in shady dealsevery character here is an exercise in writing authentic people.
Once in Egypt, Khosi finds a world of mishap and hurtful falsehood: his father is engaged to a younger woman, his relatives believe that he and his mother are dead and he finds himself drawn into a run-in with the Egyptian underworld on his father's behalf. And if that weren't enough, he then contracts yellow fever. The book drags somewhat in the last chapters, as Khosi's parents reconnect around his hallucinatory suffering. But Toutonghi's main characters are so vivid that this lapse into a typical climax is entirely excusable.
Evel Knievel Days is a multifaceted testament to disparate cultures. It's the foraging for selfhood in the messy roots of the past. Khosi Saqr is a memorably flawed character, crafted with wit and intelligence. He's a gentle Holden Caulfield with more focus on family than on frustration. Filling out his narrative with musings on philosophy and society, Toutonghi has composed an understated fictional autobiography that is both introspective and absorbing. Except for one or two inconsiderable annoyances (the frequent appearance of the ghost of William Andrews Clark to give Khosi vital information is one of them), it is nonetheless a quiet evocation of displacement and belonging, America and the Middle East, walking onions and the mythical complexities of making baklava. It's an affectingly simple and simply effective comedic melodrama in nearly every way.