by Leigh Montville; Doubleday, 2011; 398 pages; $27.50
Leigh Montville, a premier sportswriter, has as the subject of his latest book one of the goofiest, most preposterous American sports entertainers ever: legendary motorcycle daredevil and extreme showman Evel Knievel — the crazy guy who jumped motorcycles over lines of cars, trucks, even buses and attempted to cross the quarter-mile wide Snake River Canyon on a Skycycle rocket during the 1960s and ’70s.
According to Montville, the author of popular books on baseball superstars Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, among Knievel’s circle of family and friends no one called him “Evel.” He was Robert Craig Knievel of Butte, Mont. Or he was just Bob Knievel: high school dropout, con man, thief, motorcycle rider, ice hockey star, heavy drinker, womanizer, day dreamer, fast talker, jailbird, extortionist, egomaniacal self-promoter and probably mid-20th century America’s bravest stuntman. The moniker “Evel Knievel” was strictly a brand name, a less-threatening version of a name given to Bob by a Butte City jailer who dubbed the teenage crook “Evil Knievel.”
By inserting subjective stories about Knievel among sections of biographical fact and chronological history, Montville creates a true impression of the volatile motorcycle-riding daredevil and his influence on American popular culture.
The central question implicit in Montville’s book about a very unpleasant, self-destructive but popular performer is this: Why is it important to study and understand the life of Bob Knievel? Montville answers that question in various ways and each explanation rings true in the face of our pop-culture’s history.
In mid-century America, “The idea of a guy … jumping over an ever growing string of parked cars on a motorcycle was revolutionary, different, funky, extreme. The story offered a combination of noise, smoke, crashes, broken bones, white motorcycle leathers, American individualism … The whole thing was modern and absurd,” Montville writes.
At the center of the incredibly dangerous motorcycle-jumping action was this grandiose, outrageous, preposterous egotistical daredevil who might or might not have a death wish. Knievel often joked: “Yea, I have a death wish. I wish to die when I’m 105!”
Montville describes Knievel: “He is pool-hall handsome, good chin, prominent nose, steady eyes, sandy hair combed back, semi-serious sideburns. Self-confidence is not a problem.” He dresses in wide-collard, Elvis Presley-style leisure suits circa 1970. He swaggers. “He is a work of modern art,” Montville concludes.
Evel Knievel’s act was simple and direct: “He drives his motorcycle at a high speed off a ramp, over assorted objects, mostly lines of cars … and he attempts to land on a ramp on the other side.” And over time, Bob from Butte made millions of dollars repeating that simple circus trick.
The key word is “attempts.” Knievel crashed more often than he successfully completed the jumps. And he suffered terribly: During his career he broke all the major bones in his body except his neck. He broke both legs, both arms, his back twice, and, when he crashed in Las Vegas trying to jump the fountains at Caesar’s Palace casino (seen on ABC’s Wide World of Sports), his hips were pushed through his pelvis and his left leg was pulled out.
Here, Montville identifies the key element of Knievel’s fame and fortune: “The foundation of his success is failure. The more times he lands in an ambulance instead of on the specified ramp, the more times he is carted away for more reconstructive surgery, the more captivating his show becomes … He is selling fear and worry.”
The more Evel was hurt, the bigger the crowds grew, the more times he was covered by Wide World of Sports and late night talk shows, the more his “Evel Knievel doll on a motorcycle” sold ($100 million worth of dolls in three years), the richer and more famous he became.
For sportswriters, Knievel was a big dilemma. Many agreed with Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray when he wrote that “Knievel was selling … Death! Craziness! Sick fun!” But the American public could not get enough of what Knievel was selling. The daredevil reflected the values of his society at large. Reason enough to study and understand the “man of the moment,” as Montville calls him. He concludes: “Perfect. Evel Knievel wasn’t selling success! He was selling failure! Perfect. That was what America loved, the danger of it all.”
Bob Knievel, of course, was perfectly aware of what he was doing and the controversy his act stirred up, and he wanted it that way. Just prior to his attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon, he told a crowd of supporters, “I don’t know if I’m an athlete, a daredevil, a hoax, or just a nut … But when I make that jump, I’ll be competing against the toughest opponent of all — and that’s death.”
In Montville’s final analysis, he concludes that Knievel “was a red-white-and-blue American capitalist hero surrounded by noise and gasoline fumes, strength and power. He was not counter to the culture, he was the culture, front and center.”
Montville does not, or cannot, answer whether Evel Knievel was a true athlete and what he did was a real sport, or whether he was only a showman performing a very dangerous and thrilling carnival act. Reason enough to read Montville’s book and decide for yourself.
Art Gould is a former newspaper reporter and book publisher. He lives in Anniston.