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An Evel Knievel biography traces the rise and fall of a daredevil.


New York Times

Martin Amis once described a certain kind of attention-getting book review - an unlikely person assigned by a mischievous editor to discuss an unlikely topic - with this excellent bit of shorthand: "Evel Knievel on Kierkegaard."

This kind of stunt assignment usually works, too, when you turn it on its head. "Let's ask Kierkegaard (or a reasonable sentient facsimile)," the editor thinks, "to ponder Evel Knievel." It's a living.

It is safe to say that Evel, a new biography of Knievel (1938-2007) by Leigh Montville, does not take a Kierkegaardian approach to its subject. This book is, like Knievel's life, slick, pulpy, eye-filling, exhaust-belching and in the end a bit boorish and irksome. Its ideal form would be a mass-market paperback flecked with glitter. It should come with a grape Slurpee, a little packet of Pop Rocks and a small American flag to wave between your thumb and forefinger at teary moments.

Montville is a former senior writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of best-selling biographies of Ted Williams and Babe Ruth. In Evel he writes in florid high style, as if pulling a wheelie across every page. This can be smart, rowdy fun. Montville tacks the young Knievel to the wall wonderfully, calling him "pool-hall handsome, good chin, prominent nose, steady eyes, sandy hair combed back, semi-serious sideburns." He catches the way the wingspans of Knievel's jacket collars were the "same as a good-size pterodactyl."

This style, over nearly 400 pages, overheats and dies by the roadside. Sample overkill sentences, plucked from among many: "He always lived as if his pants were on fire." "He was Harold Hill, the Music Man, discovering trouble right here in River City." "He walked with the home-run hitters now."

Evel is never dull. It traces Knievel's youth - his given name was Robert Craig Knievel - in Butte, Mont. It was a hard-drinking mining town with a get-rich-quick mentality that he absorbed. Knievel's father drove buses and sold cars; his mother was a homemaker who later, in Reno, sang a bit with the Mills Brothers. Knievel barely knew his parents. They divorced and left town when he was young, leaving him and a brother to be raised by their maternal grandparents.

Knievel dropped out of high school. He worked briefly in the local mines, sold insurance and started his own semipro hockey team before he discovered that stunt riding on motorcycles was a way to draw attention and girls in tight shorts. He'd race up an impossibly steep hill near an A&W Root Beer stand on summer nights, people cheering from their cars below. The management promised free food if he kept it up.

Knievel got his stage name, the author suggests, when he was tossed in jail (he was a juvenile delinquent and a prolific thief) with a troubled man named William Knofel, whom the cops had nicknamed Awful. One of them is said to have smirked, "Look at this, we've got an Awful Knofel and now we've got an Evil Knievel." It was among Knievel's masterstrokes to spell his new name with an "e" instead of an "i," and to shun black leather for clean-cut white.

Knievel's career as a daredevil was small time until ABC began to film his jumps, in the late 1960s, for Wide World of Sports. He truly broke into the national consciousness in 1967, when he tried to jump the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. He missed, horrifically, fracturing his pelvis. A mesmerizing short film of the crash, made by John Derek and his wife at the time, the actor Linda Evans, went global.

"The film was everything," Montville writes. "The film was instant credibility." It was Knievel's passport, he adds, "a not-so-secret word that opened the toughest doors in television, made its owner a desired guest. (I can bring along that clip from Caesars Palace. People love that.)" If the jump had been successful, his career might have gone nowhere.

Montville captures Knievel's peak years, the decade between 1967 and 1977. The Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle was the most popular Christmas toy in America in 1973, eventually earning Knievel millions of dollars. "His name would be on bicycles, bedspreads, pinball machines, lunch boxes, candy bars," the author writes, as well as on dozens of other future garage sale (and eBay) items.

Here's something to try at home. If you want to know what one of his spectacular crashes feels like, he told a reporter, strap on a helmet and sit on the hood of your car while your wife guns the speed up to 90 mph. "Then you hold your nose and fall off," Knievel said. "Then you'll know what it feels like."

Hundreds if not thousands of kids were hurt, some badly, trying to copy his stunts on bicycles in their back yards. In 1976 the journal Pediatrics ran a paper titled "The Consequences of Imitative Behavior in Children: The Evel Knievel Syndrome."

Montville puts Knievel in cultural context. Like Elvis, from whom he borrowed his sideburns, his bell-bottoms and his swagger, he was anything but a footloose hippie. "Everything he does is counter to the counterculture," the author writes, adding, "There is not a mellow bone, broken or unbroken, in his body."

Evel builds toward Knievel's 1974 attempt to roar over the Snake River Canyon in Idaho, a much-publicized flop. His missile's parachute opened too soon, and he drifted to the canyon's bottom. The crowd became ugly. Hell's Angels helped provide security.

As the book moves forward, Montville builds a brutal, nearly airtight case against Robert Knievel the man, who could pour on the charm when he wished, but he was rude and stupid, a grifter and con man, anti-Semitic, a pathological liar, a sexist pig who beat his longtime wife and slept with hundreds of women. The press eventually caught on and turned surly.

"The contest is Evel Knievel versus the canyon," the San Francisco Examiner sports columnist Wells Twombly wrote. "The canyon is the sentimental favorite." What little credibility Knievel had vanished in 1977 when he, along with a hired goon, took a baseball bat to a man who had written a mildly unflattering book about him. He spent time in jail and came out damaged goods. The Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle was soon discontinued. His battered body was giving way.

Late in his career - he lived in Clearwater for the last years of his life - he was a sad spectacle. He attended the AVN Awards (the porn Oscars) and did commercials for a bail bonds company. He was arrested for soliciting a prostitute. He played sloppy golf and drank too much. He died of lung disease in St. Petersburg in 2007, a few months after finding Jesus and appearing on the Rev. Robert Schuller's Hour of Power TV show to announce that he'd been saved.

"I rose up in bed," Knievel said into a microphone, back at last on center stage. "I was by myself. I said: 'Devil, devil, get away from me, you bastard you. I cast you out of my life.'"

Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend

By Leigh Montville

Doubleday, 398 pages, $27.50