Ah, the '70s, not just in Hollywood but at the Southern California racing ovals of Indio, Gardena and Ontario. As Montville hints, Knievel exuded a kind of "Boogie Nights" aura — "his own musk smell," as one promoter puts it — wherever he went as a star (he liked Filthy McNasty's on the Sunset Strip).
Despite all that, he was never far, literally or figuratively, from his Butte, Mont., roots; Knievel had married a Butte girl and kept a home and family there after he got famous. Born Robert Craig Knievel, he had been "a classic semi-orphan Butte kid" who was left with his paternal grandparents as a child, in a hard place where the predominant activities were copper mining and drinking. Knievel went from high-school dropout to inveterate thief and shakedown artist to regional salesman for the Combined Life Insurance Co., out of Chicago.
This last stop, as Montville theorizes, is where Knievel really found himself — as an acolyte of Combined's founder, W. Clement Stone, whose principles included, "Aim for the moon. If you miss, you may hit a star."
In Knievel's case, he became a star by missing.
Montville wisely whips through the many jumps Knievel successfully made ("drunk, with his right hand taped to the handlebars, he flawlessly cleared eighteen Dodge colts and one Dodge van..."), while lingering on the behind-the-scenes bacchanals and bone-crushing postscripts of his failures.
It was by crashing (the daredevil eschewed things like speedometers) that Knievel's life choice could seem meta, even if he was more cowboy than ironist. At the outset of the book Montville posits Knievel as some sort of counter to the counterculture figure at a time of cynicism over Watergate and Vietnam. Into this maelstrom entered this "young Elvis dropped from a previous generation of pegged-pants, duck's-ass rebellion into the Age of Aquarius, more about trouble and excitement than peace and love."
But "Evel" is not a cultural study of an icon (lacking an examination of Knievel's comedic doppelganger, Bob "Super Dave Osborne" Einstein),as it is a wild ride on the back of Knievel's cycle. "I don't know if I'm an athlete, a daredevil, a hoax, or just a nut," Knievel said at the press conference to announce the Snake River Canyon jump. "But when I make that jump, I'll be competing against the toughest opponent of all — and that's death."
In that sense Knievel went undefeated in his sport. His last nationally televised stunt was in prime time on CBS in January 1977, in Chicago's International Amphitheatre.
It was winter. Knievel's obstacle was a tankful of supposedly "man-eating sharks" (this was months before Fonzie popularized the stunt on the sitcom "Happy Days," sending a metaphor into our future lexicon).
The shark tank show was a highly rated fiasco. Knievel crashed doing a practice run, and half of the sharks shipped in for the stunt ended up dying, Montville reports.
Evel survived, of course.
Brownfield is a New York-based writer and critic. email@example.com