SEPTEMBER 20, 2012
LATVIAN-EGYPTIAN AUTHOR Pauls Toutonghi’s big-hearted second novel, Evel Knievel Days, an account of familial love, loss, and emotional inheritance, is narrated by Khosi Saqr, a neurotic, brainy half-Egyptian kid living in Butte, Montana. At 23, most of his friends have left the small mining town for brighter futures, but Khosi has stayed on, partly out of fear and partly out of obligation to his sick mother. She suffers from Wilson’s disease, a genetic disorder that prevents her body from properly absorbing copper, which saddles her with unpredictable mood swings and elaborate dietary restrictions — vexing problems for a woman who runs her own catering business. The food she cooks is Middle Eastern, the sole remnant from her soured marriage to Khosi’s Egyptian father.
He taught her how to cook his country’s food, the lamb and beef and chicken and pork dishes of his Coptic Christian parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. And then: vanished, leaving her with his foods and traditions, a hundred thousand dollars in gambling debts, and a three-year-old boy as copper as a penny.
In the face of emotional disorder, Khosi orders the world around him obsessively, to a degree that begs to be medicated. He color-codes his shirts, tucks his bed sheets into hospital corners, and touches all four walls of his bedroom before leaving it each day. But Khosi’s sense of control is rattled when his erstwhile father resurfaces with divorce papers and then splits again. The surprise visit propels our narrator on a wildly uncharacteristic journey in search of the father he barely knows. The rest of the novel takes place in Cairo, where in some ways Khosi finds what he’s looking for and in some ways doesn’t.
There’s a lot going on in this book, but Toutonghi pulls it all off with flourish. The story is fun without being lightweight, and the writing is a page-for-page pleasure. Toutonghi has a poet’s talent for metaphor, which is unsurprising given that he wrote poetry before turning his full attention to novels. At his hand, an absent father is never just an absent father, but “a satellite, an empty suitcase, a vacant motel room.” In the slums of Cairo, squatters are living in crumbling buildings where their “colorful plastic tents bloom like moss on the bones of a skeleton.”
The past runs like an artery through this book (Khosi works as a tour guide at a regional museum in Butte and Toutonghi’s Cairo is a city choked with history). The characters themselves are like archeological relics to be dug up and studied. Khosi doesn’t know his father, but he senses the ghost of him everywhere — in childhood memories, in food, in the face he sees whenever he looks in the mirror.
Like Tolstoy, Toutonghi knows that some ties can’t be severed. Those invisible cords that spiral through time, binding all families, happy or unhappy, together. “Your parents are proprietary,” he writes. “They might not know it, and you might not know it, but they’re yours. And the things you say about them, they are balanced by a weight of equal, unsaid things, a weight of memory, that is heavy and broad and almost tactile.”
In the end nothing works out the way Khosi plans, and the book is better for it. Because at its heart, this is a story about love’s messier triumphs, the ones we don’t plan for. It’s a celebration of the simple fact that love exists and that we have the capacity to experience it, even if only for a time.