Books

Author Pauls Toutonghi's 'Evel Knievel Days'

OPB | July 30, 2012 5 p.m. | Updated: July 31, 2012 12:55 a.m.

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Courtesy of Pauls Toutonghi

The Portland writer Pauls Toutonghi jumps right into the kitchen in the first chapter of his new novel Evel Knievel Days:

Egyptian cooking is folk magic. Not magic in the sense of dematerializing doves or sawing beautiful ladies in half. But magic in the deeper sense of the thing — in the raw joy of what magic once was, hundreds of years ago, thousands of years ago: a surprise, a shock, an astonishment. A lesson about the invisible. A lesson about belief.

And as the beginning promises, there is plenty of metaphorical magic in the book.

Evel Knievel Days follows Khosi Saqr, a young man who, as Toutonghi explains to Think Out Loud host Dave Miller, “likes things a particular way.” Saqr “keeps his pencils sharpened and aligned in descending order according to length on his desk.”

The protagonist was born in Butte, Montana, hometown of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel and site of the annual Evel Knievel Days festival, to an anxious white mother and an absent Egyptian father. But Saqr’s life takes a turn when his father briefly returns and then heads back to Cairo. Saqr decides to go to Egypt. “Because of who he is,” explains Toutonghi, “it’s a difficult journey.”

Toutonghi takes us from Butte’s high country to Cairo’s teeming streets, a trip not unlike one he recently took himself. Soon after the recent revolution, Toutonghi and his own Egyptian-born father traveled to Cairo. It was the first time his father had been back in 65 years.

Listen to the entire Think Out Loud conversation about both trips, Evel Knievel and the wonders of mulukhiyya.


Interview Highlights

On Evel Knievel:

“I like the idea that there was this guy who was crazy enough to get on a motorcycle and go 100 plus miles per hour, fly down a ramp and try and jump 12 double-decker buses. I mean, if you think about that, how do you get to that point as a human being? How do you make that happen? To go through and train and to do all this stuff to actually jump over the buses, it’s kind of a fabulous thing. As a novelist, you are attracted to interesting things. Things that you’re curious about, you try and look for subjects that will stand up to sort of poking at them and bringing them into the light.”

On going to Egypt with his dad and looking for his father’s childhood home:

“All the streets have been renamed, not once but twice. So a modern map didn’t really work. We found a book that had an old map from the original development plan for that area of the city, Heliopolis. We sort of used the two maps together, along with a guide, and we finally found the street. My Dad said, ‘Oh, I remember there was a café on the corner.’ That café was now a gas station. Then we went up the numbers, it was like number 20. So we went all the way, up the numbers, and we came around the corner and the house had been demolished. It had just been demolished maybe a year before, eight months before? And there was just this skeletal structure of a high rise that was being constructed.”

On watching the revolution unfold:

“It was an incredible time to be there. I don’t really have words for it. I wrote about it a lot. But, just to see all of this optimism. A country that has had no optimism for three decades, four decades maybe. And all of a sudden to see this hope for democracy. It was just amazing.”

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