Leaving this hardcover propped on the arm of the couch, my mom spotted the title and snapped her head up in surprise. “You’re reading a book about Evel Knievel?” she squeaked.
“Not exactly,” I replied with a shrug of my shoulders — and with some difficulty, I began to describe the plot of Pauls Toutonghi’s novel. This book has nothing to do with the famous daredevil beyond the fact that the main character, Khosi, hails from Knievel’s own hometown of Butte, Montana . . . or does it?
Twenty-something Khosi Saqr knows every nook of Butte — and has never really imagined venturing beyond its borders. Growing up as the biracial son of a white American mother and an Egyptian father, Khosi’s relationship with his mom has been greatly altered — and strengthened — by the absence of his father.
After Pops takes off to stay one step ahead of the disreputable folks to whom he owes gambled cash, Khosi has been his mother’s emotional support system for decades. He’s focused on his job at a historic estate and managed to navigate his two worlds — the American one, the mysterious Egyptian one — and created an identity for himself. But when his dad reappears in Montana after twenty years away, running off before Khosi even gets a hard look at the man, his forgotten son will embark on a once-in-a-lifetime journey.
So, Evel Knievel Days is both a unique and a familiar story. Equal parts coming-of-age story and exploration of heritage, Toutonghi’s novel is unlike anything I’ve read before — and even successfully managed to weave an element of magical realism into an otherwise grounded tale. Though very specific to Khosi’s divided existence, the novel still holds universal appeal. I read it quickly and eagerly, admiring the author’s ability to assemble such a diverse but memorable cast.
Here we have Khosi, a funny and erudite young man who spends a whole lotta time with his complicated mother, and he’s this slightly awkward, awesome narrator you can’t help but love. His (mostly) unrequited crush on his childhood best friend, Natasha, shows us he’s more than capable of love — but his tenuous connection to his father and the Egyptian culture makes him feel quite “in between.” Toutonghi allows Khosi to be known to readers without slamming us with too many details — and I appreciated the way we’re given just enough information about what our main man is thinking.
So where does Evel Knievel come into all this? Khosi is an obsessive-compulsive who must find it in himself to take the largest plunge of his life: running off to finally come face-to-face with his ne’er-do-well father. Making that trip is the biggest, scariest leap of his life — and like Butte’s favorite son, Khosi must stare into the chasm, face his fear . . . and do it anyway. Khosi’s connection to the famous daredevil felt authentic and well-explored, and I liked that Toutonghi had just enough references to Knievel to tie it together but kept it from getting schlocky.
Though I was a little stumped by the introduction of a ghost/hallucination in the middle of the narrative, it’s obvious that Khosi’s divided heritage is central to the plot. Well-paced and thought-provoking, Evel Knievel Days raised some interesting questions about family, love and connection, and I’d heartily recommend it to fans of literary and contemporary fiction. Plus? Totally allows for some awesome armchair traveling!
4 out of 5!