Gretchen McCullough, "Confessions of a Knight Errant: Drifters, Thieves and Ali Baba’s Treasure"
It’s time for another book review by Don Noble. This week, Don reviews “Confessions of a Knight Errant” by Gretchen McCullough.
Originally from Harlingen, Texas, a border town, Gretchen McCullough is a veteran world traveler, now what one might call an expat, immersed in foreign cultures. Even before taking her MFA in fiction writing at the University of Alabama, she had taught in Japan and Turkey and then in Syria. For decades she has been on the faculty of the American University in Cairo. Her first two books of fiction—“Three Stories from Cairo” and “Shahrazad’s Tooth and Other Stories”—were mainly set there, evoking the colorful and odd goings-on in that ancient and exuberant city.
This book, her first novel, opens during the Arab Spring. The narrator, Gary, an American academic, is on the lam. He had been doing research into water pollution in the Nile, especially the mass death of thousands of fish. Falsely accused of being a cyber terrorist, he fled Egypt for Malta disguised as a woman in a niqab with his buddy Kharalombos, where he fell in love with Boriana, a Bulgarian circus performer. They have returned to Cairo because Kharalombos wants to see his two-year-old son, Nunu. He had impregnated the daughter of the dictator while giving her dancing lessons.
Based on her own and her Egyptian husband’s personal experience, McCullough describes the ways in which the neighbors guard their neighborhood from marauding bands of looters in all the disorder of the uprising in Tahrir Square. We meet Ramses el-Kabir, an archaeologist and television personality, Bill and his wife Rose, a romance novelist who has written of snake-handling churches in Alabama, and Gudrun, a German woman, who convinces them to go with her to work in a girls summer camp she owns in Texas, on the border. There we meet an even goofier collection of characters, including some spoiled brat girls and an Irish couple, Aengus and Sinead, who may have been IRA and connected to the Gaddafi regime in Libya. And others, many others.
There is perhaps a meth lab and a murder on an adjoining property and a cave full of stolen treasure from the Baghdad Museum. In the barn are a zebra and a llama. This is a confusing story, but it is meant to be.
McCullough has in mind a kind of Marx Brothers madcap comedy, teeming with odd characters. The story, utterly fantastic, jumps the shark every few pages. On the serious side, many of these non-Americans—from many different countries—make cogent remarks on American culture, which they feel: “demanded that you flatten yourself into a slice of bland Wonder Bread.” They see it as overly materialistic, over-organized and work-obsessed. Worth thinking about. McCullough has a singular sense of humor. Read the first chapter and, if this is your kind of chaos, go for the ride.