A Montanan walks into a Cairo bar: A review of Evel Knievel Days

by Jenny Shank

Evel Knievel Days
Pauls Toutonghi
293 pages,
hardcover: $24.
Crown, 2012.

Khosi Saqr Clark, the narrator of Pauls Toutonghi's funny and winsome second novel, Evel Knievel Days, isn't a typical native of Butte. Sure, he loves Montana and enjoys the annual Evel Knievel Days spectacle, complete with its "American Motordome Wall of Death," but his neurotic nature ("the obsessive-compulsive's worst fear: the world infinitesimally askew") and his singular heritage set him apart.

Khosi is the only child of an eccentric single mother, Amy Clark, a caterer specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine using recipes she learned from her husband, Khosi's Coptic Christian Egyptian father. Khosi's father left when he was 3 and made no effort to keep in touch, leaving behind only unanswered questions and a garden full of invasive Egyptian walking onions.

Khosi works as a tour guide in his great-great-grandfather's Copper King Mansion. "He was a copper king," Khosi explains, "a second-generation Irish immigrant turned vest-wearing frontier industrialist."

Meanwhile, Khosi lives at home and keeps watch over his mother, who suffers from Wilson's disease, an ailment that makes her unable to absorb copper, and requires her to take "an army of pastel pharmaceuticals daily." Missed pills make her behave in odd ways; at times, Khosi finds her sitting on the roof.

"I was a card-carrying member of MENSA," Khosi explains, "but the problem was this: I hated leaving Butte. Butte was home. Butte was comfort. Butte was order." So Khosi never left for college, unlike his lifelong best friend and secret love interest, Natasha, who returned from college with a fiancé.

A crisis over Natasha and Khosi's desire to find out about the other half of his identity prompt him to travel to Egypt and seek his father. In the second half of the book, we experience Cairo through the perspective of a native Montanan who has never traveled. Khosi is often bewildered and in unexpected peril. He believes he's receiving advice from the ghost of his great-great-grandfather and learns his dad is even more of a shyster than he'd expected.

Khosi finally finds the personal order he's always craved by plunging himself into the disorder of Cairo in the conclusion of this quirky and heartfelt novel.

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