Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
A lot of disjointed pieces that don't add up to much of anything
TERRY Gilliam's 1985 cult film Brazil has some sparkling scenes and ideas, but in general is too fragmented to be considered a great movie.
The dystopian satire's title may refer to Ary Barroso's song Aquarela do Brasil (Watercolor of Brazil, covered by Geoff Muldaur on the soundtrack) but the song's connection to the ideas of the movie is difficult to pin down.
Seattle literary writer Pauls Toutonghi's second novel suffers from some of the same problems. Engaging but scattered, Evel Knievel Days keeps the reader guessing as to the relevance of the title, and the many enjoyable aspects of the novel do not add up to a satisfying whole.
Toutonghi's father was Egyptian, mother Latvian. He won the U.S. Pushcart Prize for his 2006 novel, Red Weather.
Twenty-something Khosi Saqr, who narrates this story, lives with his mother in Butte, Mont., the hometown of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel. Khosi's Egyptian father, who had a gambling problem, deserted the family when Khosi was a toddler.
Khosi's mother is from one of the founding copper mining families of Butte. She is a caterer, specializing in Egyptian cooking, taught to her by her husband.
The novel includes several recipes, not unlike Mexican writer Laura Esquivel's 1989 hit Like Water for Chocolate. But their place in the book is sometimes unclear.
Food is a recurring motif in the narrative, as is recovery from debilitating conditions (Khosi's mother has a genetic disease that prevents her body from absorbing copper), honesty in relationships, cultural disconnection and reconciliation. None of these manages to provide a thematic framework for the story.
Khosi complains about the names he was called as a child in Montana, and has a complicated closeness with his childhood friend Natasha.
He mentions his obsessive-compulsive behaviour, but this aspect of his personality seems too mild to be a disorder. Perhaps it reflects a general need for order as kind of substitute for meaning in life.
When Khosi finds out that his father has visited his mother, he suddenly and quixotically jets off to Cairo to find his roots. "I was afraid of failure, sure. But I was equally afraid of success. I was afraid that I would find my father, and then what?"
Following decades-old addresses provided by a family friend in Montana, Khosi gets in trouble almost immediately, but it's not clear why. Then his search is made simple by the inexplicable appearance of the ghost of his great-great-grandfather, the original copper magnate.
Toutonghi describes Cairo intimately, but Khosi's search presents only snapshots of the city, which are interesting, but lack the context to help the reader experience the city as more than a series of unanchored visual and cultural aspects.
Khosi's adventures in Cairo range from amusing to potentially tragic, as finding his father turns out to be much easier than the "and then what?" of discovering his place in this exotic world.
The reader suffers a similar disconnection. While the book is easy to read, none of the characters acts in ways that seem realistic, and few of the odd behaviours and occurrences are explained adequately.
The novel may be almost too lifelike, indicating the kinds of seemingly random occurrences that make up most people's lives. Some readers will prefer more closure, more tying up of loose ends than Toutonghi delivers here.
An epilogue, four scant pages, mentioning last year's protests in Tahrir Square, makes one wonder how autobiographical the novel is.
All in all, like Brazil, this is a diverting journey, but ultimately unsatisfying. The film at least had the enjoyable feeling of surreal visuals and plot twists. Evel Knievel Days never fulfils the surrealism that might be expected from a novel about Egypt with such a title.
Landmark resident Bill Rambo is a high school teacher.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2012 J8
(1 of 23 articles for this week)