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Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel by Leigh Montville

Montville’s “outlandishly entertaining” biography traces the life of Evel Knievel from his outlaw youth and brief superstardom to the sad years at the end of his life.

(Doubleday, $27.50)

For several years beginning in the late 1960s, Evel Knievel was “the coolest man on earth,” said Kyle Smith in the New York Post. By tracing the life of the motorcycle daredevil from his outlaw youth to brief superstardom and beyond, Leigh Montville’s “outlandishly entertaining” biography helps us remember why. Born Robert Knievel in 1938, this son of a hardscrabble Montana mining town styled himself a star-spangled American hero when he’d rev up his Harley and attempt—often unsuccessfully—to soar over cars, buses, cougars, and practically anything else that would draw an audience. He was a circus performer and “existential outlaw” rolled into one.

“The phrase ‘ended up in the hospital’ occurs in Montville’s biography with roughly the same frequency as the phrase ‘wrote a poem’ occurs in the biography of Sylvia Plath,” said David Kirby in The Washington Post. Knievel wasn’t, we learn, a very good motorcycle rider. As many readers might know already, he also was no saint. He’d been a prolific thief and safecracker before he launched a second career as a dirt-track stunt rider. But his past didn’t matter when ABC decided to air a 1967 film of him crashing horrifically while attempting to jump the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The accident made him an instant folk hero and taught him a crucial lesson: “The more he crashed, the more people would watch him.”

Even while savoring Knievel’s antics, Montville “builds a brutal, nearly airtight case” against the stuntman’s character, said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. Knievel was a serial liar, an anti-Semite, and a misogynist who slept with hundreds of women and beat his wife. By the time he flopped in his 1974 attempt to jump Idaho’s Snake River Canyon in a homemade rocket, the press was turning against him. Knievel eventually spent time in jail for attacking a man with a bat, and ended his years as a sad spectacle. Long before its subject dies, from lung cancer, in 2007, this book’s florid style grows wearying. But there are worse crimes. “Evel is never dull.

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