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TBTS Reviews: Evel

June 15, 2011

If you were a boy of the 1970s, you probably had an Evel Knievel motorcycle. Made by Ideal Toys, the nigh-indestructible replica of the nigh-indestructible daredevil sold in the millions. If you didn’t have one, you knew somebody who did, and you had to play with it because it was the coolest toy anybody had. Crank it up, send it off, watch it jump. It even had a replica of Evel’s cane. You loved it, and you loved the guy who inspired it, the iron-willed, fearless daredevil who would risk his life as casually as you or I would cross the street.

That Evel Knievel was a truly awful human being never entered into it. Didn’t matter. Kids were insulated from that stuff. So were most adults. We saw him as the red-white-and-blue clad, All-American conservative hero, Elvis on wheels. But one day, Evel’s star fell, he became passe, none of us new why. He stopped jumping. We stopped seeing him on Wide World of Sports. The man who was everywhere was suddenly nowhere. And, truth be told, none of us noticed for long. We all put our Evel Knievel toys away for the next big thing: Star Wars.

But, every once in a while, we’d bring the cycle down for old times’ sake. I have it on good authority that Evel Knievel jumped an X-Wing fighter. Maybe even the Millenium Falcon. Maybe both, together. He’d do it. Without the least hesitation.

Leigh Montville’s Evel is the biography Evel Knievel deserves. By that, I do not just mean that a two-faced, swaggering jackass finally gets his comeuppance and has his dark side laid bare for all to see, though there’s quite a bit of that in there. I mean this is the book that reminds you, children of the 70s, just how big Evel Knievel really was, and why. Montville writes with style and grace. He is not just a biographer, not merely a dutiful chronicler of events, but an artist in his own right, one who constructs a story as compelling as any novel in the service of his subject. In Montville’s hands, Knievel becomes a larger-than-life figure again, big as anybody in the decade of his rise and fall. His story becomes a classic American tall tale, Pecos Bill on a bike. But it very easily could’ve been a very different kind of story, as Montville tells us early on:

 

He was from Butte, Montana, and the voices in his head seemed to work differently from most other people’s voices in most other people’s heads. The voices worked different, for sure, when he was Evel Knievel, intrepid daredevil, riding that motorcycle over some perilous void, some made-up challenge that could suck him down in an instant, maim or hurt him or snuff him out, just like that, but they also worked differently when he was Bob Knievel, Bobby Knievel, or Robert Craig Knievel, private citizen, putting one foot in front of the other on an ordinary summer’s day.

That was because there were no ordinary summer’s days. Not for him. Never.

 

The man under the helmet was a rogue, and not always – not usually – a lovable one, either. To hear Montville tell it, it is something of a miracle Knievel became famous, at least in the way that he did. He could very easily have become infamous instead, a career criminal with a supervillain-worthy miles-long record. He stole, he cheated, he helped himself to money and opportunities and women. He moonlighted as a burglar while he was hiring himself out as a private security consultant. He organized a semi-professional hockey team, somehow got the Czech national team to play them in an exhibition, passed around buckets collecting donations to defray the expenses of the big event – and afterward, the money mysteriously vanished, leaving each and every creditor empty-handed. He was on his way somewhere, to be sure, but it would’ve been prison had Knievel not combined motorcycles with compulsive self-promotion and somehow made it work.

Montville captures the arc of Knievel’s career very well, an arc which mirrors one of Knievel’s own stunts. A lot of buildup, a lot of showmanship and self-promotion in the beginning. The leap – Montville identifies it as the attempted jump at Caesar’s Palace, a spectacular crash which catapulted him to fame. The point at which it becomes clear he will not be landing safely – the Snake River fiasco. Finally the crash – Knievel and a crony using a baseball bat to beat a man who wrote a sleazy but not inaccurate tell-all biography, landing Knievel in jail and damaging his brand beyond repair, sending him into a tailspin of debt and legal trouble. Knievel was a self-made man, but also a very poor craftsman.

Knievel was as shameless as he was fearless. After accidents left him needing a cane, he adopted it as part of his everyday costume even after he’d healed enough to walk without it. (Even the toy Knievel had one.) The costume canes came in two varieties: a hollow one, usually filled with Wild Turkey, and a lead pipe. Knievel used both liberally. He held himself up as clean-cut, anti-drug, pro-American. He declared himself a role model, somebody the kids could look up to, while at the same time denying himself nothing, especially when it came to women. He pretended to be a family man, but had countless one-night stands and didn’t bother to hide it. He practically threw money away at every opportunity. Worst, he beat his wife, regularly and for years. He was, as one freelance writer covering the Snake River stunt wrote, “the worst creep I ever met…. A philanderer and a bully. None of which, of course, should be held against a man. But he blew my vote of confidence because in public life he was a hungry spokesman against these evils. Whenever and wherever he could find an audience. Mr. Red-White-and-Blue. What an asshole.”

Montville is no high literary stylist. He is flashy, and he occasionally can’t stop himself from overheating. But Evel is never boring. It thoroughly condemns Knievel the man, builds an irrefutable case against him as a human being even as it cannot help but admire, however backhandedly, Evel Knievel the showman. The chapters about the Snake River alone make the book worth reading; that Knievel wasn’t killed seems miraculous given the improvised, thrown-together nature of both the stunt and the event. Montville lends an apocalyptic, doomsday feel to the scene at the canyon, where a rowdy, hard-partying crowd assembled to watch Knievel either succeed or die. Even Knievel himself was convinced he was in over his head, that after launch he would crash, he would be smashed against the canyon wall, he would burn up or drown in the river. Many things could go wrong. Almost nothing could go right. And, in the end, almost nothing did. As a chronicle of failure, Evel is thoroughly compelling.

It strikes me, on finishing the book, that Evel Knievel couldn’t have existed in any time but the ’70s. Today, with so many ways for a reckless, malicious celebrity to be exposed, Knievel wouldn’t have lasted a year, even if he did somehow manage to draw attention to himself in an age where we are spoiled for choices. But before television, before live broadcasts and Wide World of Sports, he simply wouldn’t have had the reach. By perhaps a stroke of luck greater than somehow not being smashed to bits in the Snake River Canyon, Knievel came along at a time when everyone could watch, and he was one of few good choices on television.

Perhaps Evel is a guilty pleasure. Perhaps it’s a great work by one of the more impressive sportswriters out there. I can’t decide, just as I can’t decide if I would find this book as interesting had I not grown up in a time where everybody had their Evel Knievel toys and the image of the icon was still fresh.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to spend some quality time on eBay. I’ve got some Matchbox cars that need jumping.

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