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Book Review: Confessions of a Knight Errant

by Sherine Elbanhawy

Drifters, Thieves and Ali Baba’s Treasure

This is not my first encounter with the two main characters of Gretchen McCullough’s Confessions of a Knight Errant. Gary and Kharalombos were also at the center of a novella set during the Egyptian Revolution published in Shahrazad’s Tooth and Other Stories (2013).

I realized I had missed these two quirky, lovable characters, and I was happy to dive back into their lives and follow their adventure in Texas. Confessions of a Knight Errant has all the elements of a great story; it is engaging and funny, the characters are both believable and memorable, but most of all, it is insightful and profound in helping us understand the motivations that propel us through life.

The world is full of people who belong to multiple places, who are part of the globalized world, born in one place, living and studying in another, working in a third, and traveling to a fourth and fifth. McCullough focuses on these types of characters, the ones who fall in between borders, nationalities, and categories. These cross-cultural characters come to life on the page in multiple languages and accents, a true reflection of the global world we live in,

“Kharalombos snorted, ‘You believe everything people tell you. That’s your problem. You are saazeg. Too naïve. Maybe she was using the church as a cover. She does not seem very religious to me.’”

Like many of us, McCullough’s characters have experienced many cultures and continue to do so through their work, friendships, and daily interactions. Seeing the world through their eyes is multi-dimensional, perceptive, and insightful. There are also many opportunities for faux pas, missed social cues, and misunderstood humour.

“In America, I can never tell when people are hurling a joke. I laugh at the serious things, but do not laugh when everyone else is laughing. Sometimes it causes embarrassment in committee meetings.”

These are people that we’ve all encountered in our lives; people who have lived, loved, and grappled with the chaos of Egypt, but somehow feel displaced in Texas. Although it is home to the narrator, familiar and easy in many ways, yet we soon discover it is stranger and even more stressful than Egypt.

Both Gary and Kharalombos have no choice but to adapt to their new environment; they work at Clover Flower Camp, a Christian camp for girls in Schulenburg, Texas, owned by the German businesswoman Gudrun, who is an American citizen they met and bonded with in Egypt during the revolution. “Gudrun was smoking a cigarette in a long black holder, as if she were a debutante from the twenties.”

The food and music interwoven throughout the story add a cultural dimension and show how homesick Kharalombos is, “singing Asmahan songs, nostalgic for Cairo. Couldn’t say I blamed him.” 

“I thought America would be different,” Kharalombos said, sighing. “You hear so much about it, and then, this? Even when they are having fun, Americans are such slaves to schedules. I am suffocating.”

The overly confident big-boned Greek actor and dance instructor is one of my favourite characters; he’s  magnetic, and charming not just to me but to every woman he meets. All the girls at the camp love his dancing classes, especially Ashley, who develops a crush on him. One of my favourite scenes is when Kharalombos takes Ashley to search for Egyptian cheese, a familiar practice to any diasporic Egyptian.

“Ashley was breathless. ‘We kept driving around, looking for this gas station in the middle of nowhere. They sell rumi cheese. Tastes like parmesan to me! Kharalombos said that was the only thing that would make him feel better. And the guy is Egyptian and wants to talk to Kharalombos in Arabic and tell him his whole life story. And then his wife insisted we stay for lunch and have this okra stew. I never had it that way with lamb. Amazing! It’s much better than fried okra. They were so cool. And then they insisted we have tea and rice pudding. So we stayed for another two hours. When we were about a hundred miles away, I got this flat tire, and we had to change it, like, wow. I want to go to Cairo. It sounds like such a cool, exciting place!”

Gary is the equally charming narrator who, like most of us, grapples with profound questions of love, family, and purpose. The three-time fiancé and biology professor falsely accused of cyber-terrorism entered the US with a forged passport to work as a handyman and cook at Gudrun’s camp in his home state of Texas. He wrote a novel called Pure Water which he lost during the Egyptian revolution, but he continues to write his self-deprecating daily reflections in his “ragged spiral notebook.”

“And—every writer’s fear—I was not writing, except a few hurried, scribbled lines. Did I have the patience to write another novel?”

The emotional turmoil of the narrator as he questions his privilege, relationships, and shortcomings is  similar to what keeps most people up at night. Gary was engaged to both Rachel and Gayle, but neither relationships lasted. Instead, he pursued and became engaged to the travelling acrobat Boriana who still hasn’t finalized her divorce. In Texas, he continues to pursue unavailable women and starts falling for Sinead.

“My problem with women was that I never wanted to commit—I had been engaged twice, each time for seven years. Gayle had pushed hard for marriage because of our research on “High Rates of Ammonia and Lead in the Nile.” Was research on ammonia and lead the basis for a healthy marriage? On the other hand, Rachel was close to forty and kept showing me a Ladies’ Home Journal article with a picture of a womb in the shape of a clock, TICK-TOCK—it made me limp.”

Sinead, who is Irish, married, and a mother, tells Gary, “Aengus’ll kill you.” A political element is added with every additional character, situating them within the global power dynamic. The political discussions revolve around the many places they have lived in and visited, which range from Iran, Kazakhstan, Libya, and Syria to Malta, Bulgaria, and Germany. This is one of the many strengths of McCullough’s novel; it contextualizes the politics of every character seamlessly, whether Irish, Indigenous, African American, Mexican, Russian, Greek, or Egyptian.

“Don’t bother yerself,” Sinead said. “The Irish Republican Army. Do we have to educate yous about the world? Wanted the Brits out of Northern Ireland and wanted to reunite with the South. The South is independent, and it’s called the Republic.”

Middle-aged characters are often neglected and one-dimensional in contemporary fiction but Gary is fleshed out and explored. We learn of his issues with his external physicality and body image, as well as his internal struggles that stem from failing to connect and create lasting relationships with his love interests.

“Every wall of the room was covered with a mirror. A drained, pale, middle-aged man stared back from the looking glass—the image was less flattering than Dixie’s photograph. I had never noticed the wrinkles on my neck or the furrows on my forehead. And if I looked at myself from the side, a little paunch bulged out. I was getting fat from the gourmet food at the camp. Was that me? Could we ever see ourselves as others saw us? Was that what happened to Dad, after he sold the company? He wasn’t the busy mogul anymore, full of plans—just a morose man with few hobbies or friends. He felt he was no longer needed.”

Another aspect that weaves through the story is Gary’s fraught relationship with his father, a successful businessman.

“Dad had inherited Creamy Freeze from his father, a hard-working man of Scottish descent who had wanted to get out of small-time scratch farming during the Dust Bowl. […] Dad had expanded the business: ten, twenty, one hundred trucks. Dad had sold ice cream to schools, churches, and hospitals, expanding his operation to neighbouring states. Creamy Freeze became known for its original flavors in bright, attractive cartons, with plastic prizes tucked inside. From the moment I arrived on this earth, I was heir apparent of Creamy Freeze.”

We understand that Gary’s father never valued his son’s achievements, “Even when I landed a university appointment in my thirties, Dad only asked about my retirement plan. ‘Now, son, the main thing is to secure your retirement.’ (On that point, he was right.).” By the end of the story, however, Gary starts to understand his father’s perspective. McCullough also contrasts this American family, father-son relationship, with the experience of one of the Mexican workers at the camp. “Letty said, ‘His father died when he was twenty. He owned his own fishing boat near Veracruz. He was lost in a bad storm. Muy triste. He’s sad. This is his father’s death day, and we’re so far from the grave. Too far to light a candle.’”

The narrator’s authenticity and self-reflection shine through, and we can see how much he has grown as an individual as he critiques his upbringing, class, privilege, and country.

“It was my first disillusioning experience with re-entry to the United States after travels elsewhere. An only child, all I could do was complain to Mom. She always defended Dad, saying, ‘He means well. He just doesn’t know how to show it.’ When I fell into depression in my late twenties, Mom parroted Norman Vincent Peale’s wisdom: ‘Find the upside of problems.’ Or: ‘Practice happy thinking every day.’

But the one gem I should have heard: ‘Throw your heart over the fence and the rest will follow.’”

Gary loves the invisibility of being in the US, of reinventing himself. “No one knew I was a professor at the camp. Did I enjoy being invisible or not? Was this my way of evading responsibility? I could act like a horny college kid and make out with Sinead, the Irish cook!” However, there were severe consequences to Gary’s rebellious nature, his brush with the authorities, and his political stances resulted in him losing his bid for tenure.

“I had spearheaded the protest against contamination of the Nile, urging students to dump masses of spoiled fish at the entrance—that was a fact. And the other fact was my tree-sitting campaign, which was even too radical for the University of Oregon. Over one hundred days, perched in a tree to block the logging companies. The stunt worked, but I also lost my bid for tenure.”

When Gary is falsely accused of hacking the Zadorf publishing house, we are introduced to the surreal nature of Egyptian politics and how the Egyptian Secret Service seems capable of anything.

“I had to rely on my wits and disguises to survive. The story of how a hapless, maladroit professor had brought down the computer system of a major publishing company would have been amusing, if it were happening to someone else. Had the Egyptian Secret Service framed me because I had exposed companies who had dumped chemicals into the Nile?”

This strange accusation wouldn’t be far-fetched for the Egyptian Secret Service, but as we start to realize throughout the story, Gary also tends to exaggerate and succumb to conspiracy theories despite his American background. “Why was I exaggerating? After living in Egypt for so many years, had I adopted this cultural habit?”

“In Cairo, that’s what everyone believed—and that’s what Kharalombos believed, although he was now in the United States. And it was true—after 9/11, the demand for Arabic speakers in the US intelligence services had skyrocketed, and Middle Eastern programs had flourished. Few seemed to see the value in knowing another language, unless it had direct utility. Yet who could ever determine the utility of knowledge? And how might that knowledge be connected internationally? Did an Irishman named Aengus have a nefarious connection with Libya? And was it a coincidence that Azzurro had worked in Libya?”

The CIA and FBI also have a detailed narrative that is constantly part of the characters’ conversations. This is heightened when a murder happens near the camp. Mary Alice, the camp manager, is at the forefront of the police investigation, and suspicions that she has connections with the authorities are confirmed when she suddenly clears Gary of all his accusations.

The criticism of US policies finds a place in the narrative, “Had she been living under a rock? Prisoners had languished in Guantánamo Bay for years. The Patriot Act, hastily passed after 9/11, had given the American government broad powers to detain anyone ‘suspicious.’ What had happened to that beloved chestnut of American democracy, ‘innocent until proven guilty?’ McCullough also highlights how the US authorities treat other nationalities with extreme suspicion at the border. The irony is that the only American is the one entering with a false identity and an accusation hanging over him. Yet, it is Gudrun, the successful, unmarried businesswoman, who is taken aside and interrogated for hours.

“The officer suddenly became serious. ‘Your husband is Russian?’ Gudrun sighed. ‘No husband, nein. There is no husband in my picture. As you Americans would say, he’s a loser.’ I cringed. My Dad used that word to describe anyone who was not in the Fortune 500. He studied her passport more intently. ‘What were you doing in Kazakhstan?’ Kazakhstan?! ‘Ja-aa, before I had the Clover Flower, I was buying rugs from these countries. I was no good at the rug business. They are big cheaters. Liars.’

Since the narrator himself grew up with inherited wealth within an upper-class American family, class becomes an essential element in the novel. Most of the girls who attend the Clover Camp also come from well-to-do families, but the people who work there are mostly minorities, illegal migrant workers, or immigrants.

“‘My dad’s gone.’ If I explained who my Dad was, he would think I was bragging. And then, of course, my Ivy League background was always a conversation-stopper with working people. They were either overly deferential or hated me for my privilege. Did we believe we were more egalitarian in this country than we actually were? (…) I peeked out the office door. The curved driveway was lined with fancy cars: BMWs, Mercedes, Land Rovers, and Jeep Cherokees. Were these little girls excited about summer camp? I remember the long, tense ride in a white Cadillac from Oklahoma all the way to Idaho for wolf-tracking camp when I was seventeen.”

Gary’s false passport, identity theft, and unemployable status enable him to relate to the plight, precariousness, and stress that the illegal Mexican workers experience in Texas their whole lives. 

“Five minutes later, Speedy loped into the kitchen. He pulled the apron off a hook and wrapped it around his waist. ‘I’m fillin’ in for Letty,’ he said. ‘They’re all wailing at my house. They think they’re going to be deported.’”

The hyperbolic nature of the narrator becomes his most endearing quality; before leaving the United States, he visits his mother “as any dutiful son should, in Taos, New Mexico. We laughed a lot, and in the end, she said, ‘Oh, Gary, you should have been on the stage!’

Although the university offers him a job, he finally commits to Boriana, moves to Bulgaria, and leaves us with this enchanting tale where he admits, “Stretching the truth is part of the fun. There is a fine line between memoir and fiction, and a writer or two (no names mentioned) have fallen down the rabbit hole while promising to deliver ‘a true story. Dear reader, in this lengthy tome, I must confess to the sins of exaggeration and hyperbole in my adventures with the other knight errant, Kharalombos— all for the sake of a good old-fashioned yarn.’”

Read an excerpt here and an interview with Gretchen McCullough here.

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