Friday, August 10, 2012

Pauls Toutonghi on Stories and Legends--From Butte, Montana to Cairo, Egypt (to Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Thrusday, Aug. 23, 7 pm).

Are legends born or legends made? This is one of those discussions for a bar, not a blog. But the fact of the matter is, Evel Knievel will someday become a legend. Robert Craig Knievel grew up in Butte, Montana. According to his self-named website, he got inspired to do stunt jumping at the Joie Chitwood Auto Daredevil Show, and the rest followed, jumping across cars, buses and RVs. He always spoke of jumping across the Grand Canyon, but the government wouldn’t allow it. When he finally was cleared to cross the Snake River Canyon, he used a “skycycle”, so this was not exactly the same kind of jump.

Not all legends are cross cultural. Even families have their own legends. In Pauls Toutonghi’s Evel Knievel Days (Crown), one family’s legend is of a Butte girl marrying an Egyptian boy and fathering a child. The father left, leaving Amy to raise Khosi alone, supporting them by building the best Middle East catering company in Butte, if not all Montana. But Khosi has never really known his father Akram, dependent on stories from his mom, who may not be the most truthful storyteller.

And Khosi, now grown up, has taken on the stories of the whole town. He works at the copper King Mansion, leading groups of tourists or corporate types through the magnificent home that was built by mining. And yes, it belonged to a great-great-great-great grand something of Khosi’s. And yes, that ghost appears as a character in the novel.  And the stories of Butte and his forebears and Evel Knievel (yes, it’s almost time for Evel Knievel Days in town, because of course that’s where the legendary stunt jumper is from) have more than captivated Khosi—they have captured him.

Khosi is stuck. The great friend of his life, who has turned into the great unrequited love of his live, Natasha, has blossomed while he’s still a caterpillar. She’s going to go East with a classmate, and he’s going to be a lawyer. Blech.

And then, Khosi’s father is back in town. It turns out he’s asked his mother for a divorce, and then went back to Egypt, without even so much as talking to Khosi. What’s going on? Needless to say, Khosi can’t imagine doing anything but following him. And that might just snap Khosi out of his legendary funk.

Pauls Toutonghi loves stories, and weaves mythologies of cities (Butte and Cairo), families (Khosi’s) and people (Evel Knievel). I don’t know and I don’t care if the details of those mythologies, when real people and places, are real, because I know it’s a novel. But we just had this discussion about truth in fiction while discussing The Buddha in the Attic. Were the stories of the Japanese picture brides true? There certainly wasn’t a lot of research. It was my thought that they didn’t have to be true, but at the same time, I knew that other readers would take them as true, leaving the author with some responsibility to get the facts correct.

And so that was the hoop that I couldn’t get through when I read Pauls Toutonghi’s previous novel, Red Weather. Folks may know that it was set in Milwaukee and was drew on the Latvian side of his family for its stories (Yes, Toutonghi is Latvian and Egyptian). It was the story of another young man and his father, only this time the father hadn’t run away. His life in Europe, however, wasn’t exactly what he told his family.

I just couldn’t emotionally handle some of the changes he made to Milwaukee for the sake of the story, and it led me to thinking about when I think it’s ok to change the architecture of a city, for what reasons, and what’s the best way to change it. For one thing, I’d rather the author create non-existent parts of the city, rather than change the facts on a real place. And if you change them, change them for dramatic effect, or comic effect, or horrific effect, but don’t change them because you didn’t look at a map.

Legends work best with the gift of time. At least before the internet, it probably would have gotten to the point where we said that Evel Knievel jumped the Grand Canyon, and nobody would be the wiser. But now we know he didn’t even make it across Snake River Canyon.

Interestingly enough, when the settings changed to Butte and Cairo, all my concerns jumped 25 buses and headed up the canyon. Who cares? It’s a good story. I’ll let the folks from Butte (Buttites? Buttans? Butticians?) worry about the details.

But the story still has Milwaukee connections. For what did Evel Knievel ride for most of his career? A Harley Davidson. OK, it's a flimsy connection, but it works for me.

Pauls Toutonghi will be at Boswell on Thursday, August 23, 7 pm, to discuss and read from Evel Knievel Days. He teaches at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and has written for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Zoetrope, Glimmer Train, Salon, The Rumpus, The Millions, and elsewhere.

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