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Review: Dreams of His Father in Cairo

Pauls Toutonghi, Evel Knievel Days (New York: Crown, 2012). 292 pages.

“Evel Knievel Days” is the name of a summer festival held every year in Butte, Montana, to honor the notorious late stunt rider who was born there. “And what a festival it had become,” exults the narrator of Pauls Toutonghi’s upbeat second novel:

It lasted for seventy-two hours on the final weekend in July. It was a circus of motorcycle daredevils and demolition derbies; the cops cordoned off most of downtown and routed the majority of traffic through the suburbs. I’m really not making this up. It seems exaggerated or unlikely or impossible. But nothing galvanized this corner of Montana like stunt jumping and the destruction of machines.

Thus does Toutonghi introduce his keynote and theme. Evel Knievel Days opens during Evel Knievel Days in 2008, but the festival is not its locus and the only daredevil is its narrator, whose exploits balance precariously on the edge of exaggeration and unlikelihood before ending with a gasp of happy relief — something like stunt jumping, come to think of it.

Khosi Saqr is the son of an Egyptian Copt who had come to Montana for an engineering degree and the great-granddaughter of William Andrews Clark (Butte’s legendary “copper king,” who appears later in the novel as a ghost). He lives at home with his mother in an falling-down house he likes to call the Loving Shambles (possibly the closest house in America to an EPA Superfund site), and works as a tour guide in the Copper King Mansion, a local museum that was once his great-great-grandfather’s house. An obsessive compulsive and something of an agoraphobic — his friends call him a hermit — Khosi has never been able to leave Butte, even though he is a “card-carrying member of MENSA.”

His parents split up when Khosi was three. Since then he has spent much of his time speculating about his father’s reasons for deserting him and returning to Egypt. “I’ve imagined entire stories for him,” Khosi says,

but they lead me to the same emptiness. And the most embarrassing thing? I’ve always wanted to say Daddy, that infantile and diminutive word. I never had the chance to say it, never got to write it on birthday cards or Father’s Day cards or letters home from camp.

The emptiness at the center of his life (“my hidden galaxy, my empty suitcase, my vacant motel room,” as he puts it elsewhere) is complicated by the fact that his father is the native of a “country on the other side of the world,” about which — about whose people — he knows nothing, despite his own Egyptian name:

I have a family tree somewhere, but I don’t know where, and it’s probably in Arabic, or possibly French, or possibly both. The past, the history of my family, is a strange and hybrid beast. On the one side [the Clark side]: exhaustively documented. I live and work in its midst. But on the other side: nothing. No body, no clothes, no cane, no toupee, no set of dentures, no artifacts whatever. Only a vocabulary that vanishes as soon as it’s fashioned into language. Only the vocabulary of exile and disappearance.

The two halves of his history come together, fleetingly, when his father resurfaces in Butte to secure his ex-wife’s signature on divorce papers. Khosi glimpses him lurking outside the Cooper King Mansion in a gray wool overcoat, despite the summer heat, but he only realizes after his father has fled again that the suspicious-looking man was his father. Khosi decides to follow him to Cairo.

From this point on — the last seven-tenths of its length — Toutonghi’s novel is filled with events that strengthen from strange to stranger. The opening chapters of Evel Knievel Days give the book every indication of being a standard second-generation immigrant novel like John Okada’s No-No Boy or Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air (two of the better examples), where the claim to originality is little more than to be perhaps the first to explore the “double consciousness” of Egyptian Americans (in animated prose).

Once Khosi arrives in Cairo, however, where people have been living for 7,000 years (as his taxi driver tells him), everything changes. Toutonghi later gives a rational explanation for the strange events: having left the U.S. too abruptly to be properly immunized against exotic foreign diseases, Khosi is bitten by a mosquito and contracts yellow fever. But the strangeness is allowed to linger for many chapters before any explanation is offered. “Sure, this wasn’t jumping over the Grand Canyon, like Robert Craig Knievel,” Khosi says of his efforts to navigate the strange city, “but for me — for me it was close.”

With a little help from the ghost of William Andrews Clark, who shows up in a Coptic Christian church to issue advice and warnings in a silly parody of movie Western slang that works precisely because it is so silly (“What are your sins, pardner?” “Let ’er rip.” “Sometimes life’s got a sting like bumblebee whiskey”), Khosi tracks down his father’s fiancée, a beautiful young antiquities dealer who does not believe anything Khosi says. (She has been told that Akram Saqr’s son died as an infant.)

Khosi is saddened to learn that his father is a liar, but worse is to follow. When his father finally turns up, he asks Khosi to pretend to be someone else. He introduces his only son as the son of a dead friend. His father’s dishonesty almost gets Khosi killed at the hands of gamblers. His mother arrives in Cairo with food from home, but things don’t improve. His father’s fiancée accuses Khosi of stealing a priceless ancient bracelet. Escaping from the police, he collapses from yellow fever and floats through a delirium in which his parents make peace with each other at last. Nursed back to health in a Muslim Brotherhood hospital, he attends his father’s wedding, confusing the guests, who can’t figure out whether he is family or a waiter. After everything, he decides to remain in Cairo instead of returning to America.

Although it is very funny, Evel Knievel Days is not a comic novel. It is a romance in pretty much the same sense that The Tempest is a romance: strange events crowd out natural events, not because the setting is a magical realm, but because reality becomes magical and strange when it is no longer conventional and familiar. Khosi’s decision to remain in Cairo cures him of his compulsions. In an epilogue, he reveals that he was on the streets during the anti-Mubarak demonstrations two and a half years later in Tahrir Square. By then, the Egyptian reality has turned mundane again. And Khosi can begin a normal life.