20 May 2012

Book (P)Review: Evel Kievel Days by Pauls Toutonghi

 Khosi is a young man in his early twenties living with his mom in Butte, Montana.  His Egyptian father deserted them when Khosi was only three, leaving them with far more questions than answers, not to mention a staggering amount of gambling debt. One third of the way through the book, Khosi decides to go to Egypt to track down his father after learning that he'd returned briefly to Butte only to ask for divorce papers.

Luckily for him, Khosi's mother wanted him to grow up in touch with his Egyptian heritage, so he has the benefit of years of classic Arabic under his belt by the time he lands in Egypt and is able to [mostly] communicate with locals on his own.  Unfortunately for the reader, it's shortly after that point that Khosi starts seeing hallucinations of the ghost of Montana copper magnate (and incidentally Khosi's distant relative), William Andrews Clark.  The ghost is a bona fide deux ex machina, though his presence does get an explanation later in the book.  Add to this plot a scheming liar of a father, a gregarious ready-made Egyptian family, an Evel Knievel talisman, a brush with death, and a hashish creme brulee, and you wind up with a pretty good book that occasionally misses the mark but is still worth reading.

I'm not a huge fan of first person narratives.  When they're done extremely well, the point of view does fade away to the point where I don't notice it any more, but it wasn't always the case with this book.  Still, the book at least wasn't written in the "present pernicious" tense, a phrase which my friend Rob coined.  Though I had a few minor issues, I overall enjoyed this book quite a bit.  The author makes generous use of literary allusions throughout the text, which I appreciated and had fun with, and also made me wonder how many of them I was missing.  I picked this book up because I was craving a book with Egyptian local color, and while there certainly is some, it's more of a book about family relationships and less a book about Cairo and its role as mother of the world.  Still, I learned a couple of very interesting things of Egyptian history (namely the collapse of the cotton industry at the end of the US Civil War and how it paved the way for fierce colonialism), and I would recommend this book: borrow it from a friend or a library.

One excerpt showcasing the pitfalls of translation among several included in the book is Khosi, to a man answering the door of a home where Khosi's father once lived. I kind of love this:

"I'm from America," I said in a rush. "My father deserted me when I was three, and I lived with my mother for my entire life, and now I've tracked him down to here, to Cairo -- he's Egyptian -- and I really think he might be living here, his name is Akram Saqr, and he is kind of short, like, like, like a circus bear." That's exactly what I said, word for word, with the exception of circus bear. In my panic I couldn't remember the Arabic word for circus, so I said instead "bear on a chain that wears a hat."

It was not one of my linguistic high points (99). 

NB: This book will pub in July of this year from Crown Publishers, and I received a free ARC upon request from my sales rep.


  1. Hm...just finished reading a book set in an American Farm and then back to Nagasaki. Protagonist was trying to find out more about his dead mother.

    I'll be adding this to my wish list. Thanks!

  2. Great review! I'm intrigued, but also fairly warned - I need to get myself a library card up here and take this one out.


Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)