Pat Williams can save almost any situation with a good yarn. The former nine-term U.S. congressman from Butte has a knack for engaging everyone from former colleagues to his University of Montana students to the regulars at Charlie B's with funny, straightforward, and often poignant first-person accounts. But not even Williams's presence can help Leigh Montville's disappointingly kitschy look at the life of Evel Knievel.
In the middle of a chapter about Knievel's childhood in Butte, Montville turns to Williams, who is Knievel's cousin, for a story. The two kids were messing around in Knievel's grandmother's kitchen when Knievel pinched Williams as hard as he could, prompting Williams to punch his cousin in the gut. Williams remembers hearing the air leave Knievel like a balloon, then seeing blood trickle from his ear. He'd knocked Knievel out cold, maybe even seriously hurt him. But Knievel slowly pulled himself to his feet. Then, to Williams' amazement and fear, Knievel proceeded to run full force into a kitchen cabinet, knocking himself out again. "Jesus Christ," Williams thought at the time. "There's something wrong with this guy."
That's the sort of story you expect to read in a Knievel biography—a glimpse into the making of a man who would gain fame for jumping and, more notably, crashing on a motorcycle. The only problem is that Williams's story is one of the few in Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel (Doubleday, $27.50) that gets relayed without Montville mucking up the narrative.
In a staggering accomplishment, Montville's prose manages to upstage one of the most garish showmen of all time. In the same chapter about Knievel's childhood, Montville decides to open every section with the phrase: "He was from Butte, Montana...", repeating it five times in seven pages and twice in the closing paragraph. In the following chapter, which attempts to put Butte's rich history into context, Montville ends every section with: "This is the city where Robert Craig Knievel was born on October 17, 1938." He repeats that one five times as well. Each chapter ends up reading like a hackneyed political speech, one in which unnecessary repetition attempts to build emotion.
Montville's gimmicky effort rings hollow and cheap, which is a bummer considering the talent and material on hand. Montville is a best-selling author of biographies on baseball stars Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, and a former senior writer at Sports Illustrated. With Knievel, he had a chance to tell the definitive story of an era-defining celebrity whose impact still resonates; just last weekend Butte hosted the 10th annual Evel Knievel Days festival. But Montville, as Knievel often did, turns a titillating concept into a wreck.
Knievel's odd grasp at stardom came from nothing. He grew up a troublemaking thief in Butte who also sold insurance, ran a semi-professional hockey team and operated a security company. With the last, he ensured business by robbing those who didn't hire him. Whatever he did, Knievel demonstrated a fearlessness that would eventually lead him to jumping his motorcycle over whatever sounded good on a promotional poster (snakes, fire, cars, buses). At first, he performed at Northwest racetracks in front of small crowds with limited success. A failed 1966 jump in Missoula left him with a broken arm, lacerations, and broken ribs.
Things changed a year later when Knievel essentially tricked newly opened Caesar's Palace into letting him jump over the casino's iconic fountains. He then got actor and aspiring director John Derek (future husband to Bo) and Derek's then-wife, actress Linda Evans, to film the stunt. Knievel crashed spectacularly—many onlookers believed he'd died—and the footage was sold to ABC's "Wide World of Sports." The show helped turn Evel Knievel into a household name. Subsequent televised jumps garnered huge ratings.
In 1973, the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle became the hottest selling toy in America, eventually earning Knievel millions of dollars that he'd spend on yachts, airplanes, and sports cars. He hobnobbed with actors, athletes, writers, and artists, including one surreal encounter with Salvador Dalí at a New York City restaurant. In the late 1960s and early '70s, at the peak of Knievel's career, Montville makes the case that the stunt rider was the Elvis Presley of the sports world, just as Knievel admitted his wide-collared red-white-and-blue jumpsuits and distinctive sideburns were influenced by The King of Rock and Roll.
Not everything about Knievel fit the all-American persona. To Montville's credit, he covers the daredevil's dark side in what amounts to the book's most interesting parts. Knievel was a horrendous husband who reportedly abused and openly cheated on his first wife for 38 years. He spewed anti-Semitic rants. He was an awful drunk whose cane had a secret compartment for Wild Turkey. He often stole from friends, fired faithful employees for no reason and acted like such a jackass that the media hated him. On the eve of his much-hyped 1974 jump over Snake River Canyon, in Idaho, columnist Wells Twombly wrote, "The contest is Evel Knievel versus the canyon. The canyon is the sentimental favorite."
All of this material should amount to one hell of a book—the unlikely rise to prominence, the unabashed excess of fame, the brilliant marketing of a once-in-a-generation icon, the sad slide to insignificance and the even sadder attempts to reclaim the limelight. It's all there, in almost comical excess. It's just too bad Montville didn't let a larger-than-life story speak for itself.