I must admit that when I decided to read EVEL: THE HIGH-FLYING LIFE OF EVEL KNIEVEL: AMERICAN SHOWMAN, DAREDEVIL, AND LEGEND, I did so less out of any enthusiasm for its subject than my appreciation of author Leigh Montville’s excellent 2008 book, THE MYSTERIOUS MONTAGUE: A TRUE TALE OF HOLLYWOOD, GOLF, AND ARMED ROBBERY.
That nonfiction work detailed the fascinating tale of the rise and fall of John Montague, a large, boisterous golf hustler whose reputation as the best trick-shot artist in America was quickly undone by his inability to play in front of large crowds and — more significantly — his being arrested and tried for an armed robbery committed years earlier.
Having now read both books, they serve as rather remarkable companion pieces, essentially telling the same story, but in dramatically different eras. Like Montague, Knievel was a con man with a history of criminal activity whose rise to fame was based just as much on hype than actual accomplishment. The key difference is that for all of his faults, Montague remains a somewhat tragic, sympathetic figure, while even in his best moments, Knievel is never anything but one of the world’s most epic assholes.
That said, EVEL is far from being an Albert Goldman/Andrew Morton-esque hatchet job, designed to sell books through controversy. Fact is, most of the people willing to devote time and money to a book about Knievel are likely the kids who spent hours revving their toy stunt cycles on kitchen floors in the early ’70s and I’m guessing they would probably prefer a less-honest look at their late=childhood hero.
So it’s commendable that Montville has ignored the demands of nostalgia and instead told the unvarnished truth: Evel Knievel, for a brief period in the ’70s, was the celebrity equivalent of one of those deadbeat dads who is worshipped as a god by his son, who is too young and desperately in need of an idol to appreciate what a douchebag his ne’er-do-well father really is.
I suspect, however, that how you come away from the book will largely depend on how you go into it. For some, the story of Knievel is that of one of the last American heroes — a man unafraid to put his body and life on the line for the entertainment of the masses — while for others, it’s the story of the first “reality TV star” who ultimately grew more famous for his public failures than his actual successes.
Montville does an extremely admirable job detailing his subject’s rise to fame, starting all the way back Knievel’s childhood in Butte, Mont. (which sounds, as he describes it, like the last American frontier town), and his genesis from insurance salesman/petty crook into red-white-and-blue-clad motorcycle show-jumper. As a B-movie buff, I especially enjoyed the detailed account of the making of EVEL KNIEVEL, the 1971 biopic that starred George Hamilton and helped turn Knievel into a national celebrity.
As should be expected, extra time is spent on Knievel’s two most famous stunts, both of which he fucked up. The most startling revelation in the chapter on his Caesars Palace fountain jump is that Knievel went into it knowing full well he couldn’t make it. “I’ve done the math,” he reportedly told filmmaker John Derek (whose then-wife, DYNASTY’s Linda Evans, actually shot the event’s most infamous crash footage), “and I’m going to be short.”
Again, for some, this will serve as a proof of Knievel’s integrity and heroism, while for others, it’s clear indication that he was a whore for fame at any cost. Those with the latter attitude then will find much Schadenfreudic amusement in the details and outcome of Knievel’s most ambitious stunt, the Snake River Canyon jump, which even the most ardent Knievel apologists will have no choice but to classify as a massive clusterfuck that resulted in one of the biggest anti-climaxes in the history of hype.
For fans of pop culture, probably the most apt and amusing chapter is the one devoted to the making of a live daredevil TV special CBS aired in 1976 that was supposed to climax with Knievel jumping his motorcycle over a water tank filled with 13 man-eating sharks.
Reality proved much less thrilling, as man-eating great whites proved impossible to find and were substituted by much smaller, much less dangerous specimens (only six of whom managed to survive the whole ordeal). It was all for naught, though, since the stunt had to be scrapped when Knievel injured himself during rehearsals and thus spared the world the sight of him literally ending his career by “jumping the shark” on live television.
If I have one gripe about Montville’s book, it’s that it feels rushed once Knievel’s fame comes to an end. The biggest disappointment for me came when he brought up and dismissed Knievel’s lone attempt at movie stardom, VIVA KNIEVEL!, in less than a full page, despite having spent so much time on Hamilton’s biopic. Those who’ve seen VIVA know it as one of the most absurdly over-the-top vanity projects of the era, so I was looking forward to learning how it came to be, as well as details of its production. Montville’s failure to provide this information is — for me, at least — inexcusable.
Despite this severe shortcoming, EVEL is a great book about a pretty terrible guy: a crooked, lying, abusive, violent, alcoholic who was, for a short period, one of the most famous men in America. Although his many faults render him unsympathetic, his story remains compelling and should be required reading in an age where being famous for being famous has become its own virtue and reward. —Allan Mott