Saturday, July 23, 2011

There's Evel in the Air

Tonight, a few blocks north of my house in Butte, Montana, a man will mount a motorcycle, cinch his helmet tight, accelerate down a wooden boardwalk, zoom up a ramp, and fly 1,390 feet through the air above one of the town's most popular barbecue joints.  Before he hits the dirt ramp on the opposite side of the building, he will attempt to do a backflip on his bike.  Those of us watching from the sidelines will probably spill our Budweisers as we scream and cheer him along on this outrageous stunt.

If he lands safely, we'll be talking about it for days.  But if we're honest with ourselves, deep down in our hearts, we're half-hoping, half-expecting him to crash and break a few bones.  This is why we've come to Evel Knievel Days here in Butte: to watch foolhardy men (and a few women) push their courage to the limit and fail spectacularly.  There is nothing that reminds us of our mortality better than the shard of a broken bone poking through a leather suit.

The man on the flying bike over Sparky's Garage restaurant is not Evel Knievel (he died and went to daredevil heaven in 2007), but Keith Sayers knows a thing or two about adrenaline and crowd-pleasing, death-defying, gravity-scorning stunts.  Like Knievel, he was born in this southwestern Montana mining town and like the high-flying, cape-wearing showman, he lives up to the civic motto: "Butte Tough."  Whether he does a two-wheeled landing or ends up in an ambulance screaming toward the hospital, the self-proclaimed "Godson of Evel Knievel" will succeed in at least one thing: he'll put our hearts in our throats.

In honor of this year's 10th annual Evel Knievel Days, I started reading Leigh Montville's new biography of the infamous Liberace of Harley-Davidson earlier this week.  Montville, a former senior editor at Sports Illustrated and biographer of other sports figures like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Dale Earnhardt, writes in a florid, overbearing style which paints his prose several shades of purple.  Hell, even the book's title gets not one but two colonic subtitles: Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend.
He was a character straight from the dusty back roads of self-promotion, from the land of carnival shows and fast talk, three-headed goats and cotton-candy excitement. He didn’t have a talent, really, couldn’t sing or dance or juggle pie plates, but his fearlessness, his courage or craziness, depending on the point of view, was certainly different. The size of his guts, his nuts, his stones, agates, crokies, testicles, family jewels, balls—the balls of a giant, biggest balls on the planet, etc., etc.—attracted instant attention.

Reading sentences like "He always lived as if his pants were on fire" can be off-putting at first; but eventually I caught on to what Montville is trying to do in these pages: he's turning his book into the equivalent of a Knievel show.
He had so many bumps, scabs, abrasions, that it seemed as if he had bumps, scabs, and abrasions on his bumps, scabs, and abrasions. He was a cartoon version of a cartoon version of a character that has undergone a physical mishap. There may have been a cast on at least one extremity. Perhaps two casts on two extremities.

What we're holding in our hands is a pyrotechnic, glitter-flecked, star-spangled, razzle-dazzle reading experience.  Let go of this book and it would jump over the fountains at Caesars Palace and land on the other side, both wheels on the ground.  Robert Craig Knievel would be proud.

Or maybe not, because Montville unzips the white jumpsuit and lifts off the helmet to reveal the 1970s icon's true character, warts and all.  A liar, a cheat, a thief, a womanizer, a bullshitter, a no-good scoundrel.  That was Evel. 

Montville calls the man "a skyrocket of a character who flew across the sky, bright and dazzling, spectacular for a moment, then fell apart in full public view and dropped back to the ground, his life following the same arc as one of his many jumps."

The bad-boy reputation continues even today in Butte.  Yesterday, while getting drinks at a local bar, I asked an old-timer if he was enjoying Evel Days.  "Naw, I never go Uptown for any of that.  I want nothing to do with that bastard."  (Never mind the fact that EK Days itself has little to do with its hometown son anymore; it's all about the thrills, baby....Well, that and the invasion of hundreds of fat bikers, all wearing size-too-small t-shirts.)

Montville's Evel zips and darts around the biographical timeline, never content to tell a straightforward account of a life "filled with half-truths, semi-truths, and flat-out whoppers."  The author does a good job culling the facts from the whoppers and interviewed dozens of Knievels friends, acquaintances, and enemies to get the full story of a man who "has more stitches in him than a Raggedy Ann doll, enough metal for a full Erector Set."

We see young Knievel running wild in the streets, getting in trouble with the law (but always tap-dancing his way out of a conviction).  We watch him ride his first motorcycle at 15, almost kill himself, then go out and buy a used Triumph TR5000.  We witness his early days as an insurance salesman (yes, he lived a life built on irony).  We read about his first big showy show: jumping his motorcycle over a pair of mountain lions and a box of rattlesnakes.  We see him boast about his life-long dream of the Ultimate Stunt: jumping the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle (he would have to settle for going over the Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered rocket).  Through it all, there is the wide-open mouth, the corkscrew tongue, the neon teeth.

This is a book that revels in 1970s pop culture, the era of prevaricating presidents and snake-oil entertainers.  It's a biography of America as much as it is of one man on a motorcycle.  It may be over-the-top and full of sentences that bulge at the edges.  It may exhaust and irritate some readers, but one thing's for sure: it is never ever dull.

Evel Knievel was slick, Montville's book is even slicker.

Photo: Evel Knievel lunchbox, Miracle of America Museum in Polson, MT, July 18, 2011


  1. Five Skies by Ron Carlson would be another good read during Evel Knievel days, if you haven't read it already.

  2. You're the second person this week who has brought up "Five Skies" in e-conversation with me, so I guess that's a sign I need to post my old review of the novel here at the blog. (P.S. I read and loved it when it first came out)