Pauls Toutonghi’s energetic second novel, Evel Knievel Days, tells the story of Khosi Saqr, a museum guide at the Copper King Mansion in Butte and “western Montana’s most famous half-Egyptian shut-in.” Khosi’s Egyptian father, a Coptic Christian with a gambling problem, left both his family and his debt collectors behind when Khosi was a child. Now in his mid-twenties, Khosi lives with his eccentric American mother, a caterer who stubbornly continues to cook the Egyptian recipes she learned during her marriage, and who takes a host of medications to protect her from the effects of Wilson’s disease, a rare genetic disorder that prevents her body from absorbing copper. Although Khosi has constructed an ordered life around his extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder, the shock he experiences when the love of his life announces her engagement to another man brings his world crashing down. “The citadel of the self is built on tremulous supports,” Khosi tells us in his first-person narrative. “Much more tremulous than we might imagine. Pressure, even the smallest pressure, can cause something drastic to happen.” Shortly after Evel Knievel Days, a festival that celebrates Butte’s best-known daredevil, Khosi heads to Cairo, embarking on a madcap adventure that leads him to his father and, ultimately, himself.
What sets the novel apart is its juxtaposition of humor with lyricism, a contrast that lends it a truly daredevil quality.
“This is what it feels like to be half of something: You’re never truly anything. You never fit in anywhere.” It is above all else this experience of never quite fitting in that Toutonghi attempts to convey to his readers. In exploring the experiences of a second-generation immigrant, the author, himself of Latvian-Egyptian descent, walks a fine line between the lofty lyricism of Chang-Rae Lee (Native Speaker, A Gesture Life) and the irreverent slapstick humor of Gary Shteyngart, with the latter tendency prevailing. “I should have known that nothing good could happen to me once my hands smelled like chicken livers,” Khosi declares after his first meal in Cairo. What sets the novel apart is its juxtaposition of humor with lyricism, a contrast that lends it a truly daredevil quality. There are moments when Toutonghi goes too far, most notably in his decision to have the comical ghost of Khosi’s great-grandfather, Montana’s “Copper King,” intervene to forward the plot at a key moment. Although these moments lessen the emotional impact of the novel, they are relatively rare, and Toutonghi’s skill as a storyteller largely makes up for them.
While the plot can occasionally seem too far-fetched, then, Toutonghi’s characters are on the contrary quite convincing. Khosi is notable for his embodiment of OCD, which pits the order of Butte against the chaos of Cairo. “This,” he tells us about a nightmare of his, “was the obsessive-compulsive’s worst fear: the world infinitesimally askew. The horror, the horror. I started straightening, feverishly straightening everything, but by the time I finished, all my work had been undone.” With his quirks and eccentricities, Khosi is very much his mother’s son. But it is Khosi’s father, a man who talks “like all of the characters from the cast of Casablanca mixed in together, including Ingrid Bergman,” who develops into perhaps the most nuanced character of the novel, one very different from the stereotypes of Arab males often found in both English and Arabic literature. Although the novel condones neither the way he abandoned his family nor his compulsive lying and gambling, it does treat his character with compassion, gradually transforming him from a villain into someone who is, if not a hero, then at least worthy of the reader’s sympathy. All three characters—mother, father, and son—come to recognize and accept their own flaws, and start to overcome them. The optimism of this narrative arc, coupled with the exuberance of Toutonghi’s prose, makes Evel Knievel Days a thoroughly enjoyable read. This is a breezy novel, in both the positive and negative senses of the word. Readers seeking a more poignant or philosophical look at the identity crises of immigrants will likely be disappointed, since Toutonghi’s novel does not quite attain that delicate balance of humor and lyricism that we find, for instance, in novels such as Rakesh Satyal’s 2009 Blue Boy. But for those able to sit back and enjoy the ride, Evel Knievel Days has plenty to offer.