Wednesday, November 7, 2012

*Evel Knievel Days, by Pauls Toutonghi

Crown Publishing, 2012
293 pp

"...Tolstoy was wrong.  Unhappy families are all alike. They're all alike in this moment -- in the pause before something happens, in the pause before someone reacts. And that pause: It can last seconds or minutes or days or months or years."

Family stories  normally just aren't my thing, but if they could all be written like Evel Knievel Days, I might be willing to give more of them a try.

Khosi Saqr is the half-Egyptian son of Akram and Amy.  Amy comes from the family of Butte's "copper king" William Andrews Clark.  Copper was the basis of the family money, but also the root of the family's ongoing curse. His mom suffers from Wilson's disease, a genetic disorder that makes it impossible for her to absorb copper. She's on a number of medications which she sometimes forgets to take, making her son feel unable to leave her alone, and her emotional life is for Khosi one of life's great mysteries. His dad left when Khosi was very young, leaving Amy with gambling debts, a three year old boy "copper as a penny," and "his country's food" which he'd taught Amy to cook.  Amy and Khosi live in a house he lovingly names "Loving Shambles,"  so called because it leans to one side, threatening to fall in.  All of the turmoil and disorder in Khosi's life has led him to develop a case of OCD, which manifests itself in various ways, including the way he orders his books, having to arrange the bed covers at certain angles, and opening his bedroom door twice waiting to leave the room before his mental "all clear" signal goes off.  Khosi works at  the Copper King Mansion, now a museum, formerly the home of his great-great grandfather; it's a place that offers him an outlet for his "legendary" need for order.  It's also a "part of his psyche," and a large part of who he is.

It isn't long until Khosi's well-ordered life moves into chaos and crisis; after giving it some thought Khosi decides that it's time that he reconnects with himself, part of which is his long-absent father.  As he notes:
"The past, the history of my family, is a strange and hybrid beast. On the one 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 whatsoever. Only a vocabulary that vanishes as soon as it's fashioned into language. Only the vocabulary of exile and disappearance."

Like Evel Knievel, Khosi becomes a daredevil, taking a monumental jump in deciding  to leave Butte and fly to Cairo.  His  trip will bring with it many surprises and discoveries,  including a ghost who finds him in a confessional of a Coptic Christian church (there is an explanation for this later), being accused of antiquities theft, a run in with some shady characters, and a family he never knew he had.  For someone whose life revolves around order, Cairo proves to be something way beyond challenging. 

Evel Knievel Days not only charts Khosi's course in his efforts at reconnection; a long stream of history flows through this book as well as a crash course in different elements of Egyptian culture, none the least of which has to do with food, which serves as a "bridge to the past," but even more so to one's traditional roots.  There's a great line in this book that is so true:
"A flavor repeats itself generation after generation.  It becomes part of our blood. It becomes our most elemental joy. It becomes the language of our desire. it becomes the vocabulary of our satisfaction."
It will come as no surprise that the novel is filled with food, including Alice B. Toklas' recipe for Hashish crème brûlée.  Food is family, family is love and food and family have the power to heal.  It also discusses love and relationships, and some wonderful  musings about cities and of all things, very cool country and western music.

Evel Knievel Days is one of the coolest books I've read this year and the more I think about it, the more I realize just how very much I enjoyed it.  It's funny  in a touching sort of way; the characters are outstanding and I am in total awe at the author's ability to create such colorful yet realistic people. And I'm not just talking about the primary characters, either. Every character has a purpose; every character has a life.   And as much as I loved the story and the array of people in this book, it's really Mr. Toutonghi's writing style that brings this book alive. He does extremely clever things in this book that I loved.  For example,  in relating the history of Amy and Akram, rather than spill the entire thing at once, he breaks it up into parts, dropping it into the overall story in appropriate places. He entitles each part "The Life and Times of Akram Saqr and Amy Clark, My One and Only Parents, as Told by Me, My Mother's One and Only Son, Fruit of Her Womb, 100 Percent Maculate Conception," with subtitles appropriate to where we're at in the story.  There are also many dreams in this novel;  one of my favorites  is one where Khosi is a contestant in  a Jeopardy Game, where he runs all of the categories, wins all of the money, and then sees it all float away when final jeopardy pops up with the category "The Emotional Life of You and Your Family."  These unique touches and others add life to Khosi's story and make it pop off the page.  

There was only one spot I felt was kind of slow going in the book, and that is toward the end and takes place in a  hospital room, but otherwise, Evel Knievel Days just sings.  I highly, highly recommend this novel; it's definitely going on the shelf of 2012 favorites.  Truthfully, I loved it.

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