PORTLAND'S LITERARY community has churned out a striking number of amazing memoirs over the past few years: Lidia Yuknavitch's The Chronology of Water, Cheryl Strayed's Oprah-approved Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Kevin Sampsell's A Common Pornography. You might even think, based the above list, that we're a city of self-obsessed navel gazers who find nothing more compelling than the raw material of our own lives.
And you'd probably be right, but there are novelists in Portland toiling away on made-up stories, too. Pauls Toutonghi teaches creative writing at Lewis and Clark, and while his second novel might have a biographical element or two, Evel Knievel Days is resolutely fiction. If it resembles the work of any local author, it's that of Diana Abu-Jaber, whose novels share an interest in Middle Eastern identity and the importance of food.
But none of the recipes in Abu-Jaber's books ever called for six grams of hashish. The crème brûlée recipe Evel protagonist Khosi Saqr procures from a friend is reportedly the secret recipe of Alice B. Toklas herself. Khosi is a museum tour guide in Butte, Montana—hometown of Evel Knievel—who lives with his mother and knows an awful lot about history; his obsessive-compulsive tendencies sometimes have him staying late at work to organize pencils by length. It's utterly out of character, then, when he leaves the safety of Butte for the unmanageable chaos of Cairo, on a quest to find the father who abandoned him as a young boy.
In chronicling Khosi's journey to uncover his roots, Toutonghi needs an editor who's more mindful of his tics: He has a tendency to rely on repetition, and on clarifying clauses that tumble out one after another, adding style without necessarily adding substance. (He also likes the word "blanch" a lot.) "I needed to find my dad," Khosi thinks at one point. "I needed to track down this missing part of my story, this vanished and fugitive sector of my genealogy, this dim adumbration of my family's lost past." This is not the plausible inner-monologue of a 23-year-old, even one who, we're informed, is a card-carrying MENSA member. But if Khosi never quite emerges as a fully formed narrator, the novel intelligently contextualizes its central theme, finding answers to Khosi's questions of identity in food, history, and family. ALISON HALLETT