Evel: The High-Flying Life Of Evel Kinevel: American Showman, Daredevil, And Legend, by Leigh Montville
This book was one of a set of books either given or loaned to me by one of my many book-loving friends , presumably because the subject of the book was a famous daredevil and would presumably make a fascinating subject for a compelling biography. Yet this book presented a difficult challenge, in that the obvious skill of the book, and its depth and importance, were juxtaposed against an extremely unpleasant subject. Robert “Evel” Knievel was a man who became famous as a daredevil in large part because he broke himself so recklessly, so inexpertly, and so thoughtlessly. Yet he was a broken man in many more profound ways than physical ones, coming from a broken family where both of his parents abandoned him to be raised by his grandparents, where he became a hoodlum, dropping out of school and being involved in shady criminal activity before marrying and knocking around as a daredevil after failing as a salesman because it did not promise fast enough gains.
The book takes, as might be expected, a chronological approach, continually filled with cut scenes marked “Story.” Many of the stories are repetitive tales of lots of drinking, casual womanizing, Evel being an abusive bully and pathological liar who takes advantage of others (especially his longsuffering wife, who somehow managed to stick with him for more than 30 years). Evel comes off as a thoroughly dishonorable person–cheating others of their share of the cut, showing superficial charm and being a lot of fun at first but also being a reckless gambler and a generally careless person only concerned about his own bottom line and his own immediate gratification, for which everything must be sacrificed. This is true even though he continually spouted pro-family and patriotic statements which were totally at odds with the life he lived. Despite his crusade against narcotics, he even spent much of his sad later life as an addict to pain killers in addition to his longstanding alcoholism. Despite his marriage and his bromides about being a family man, he bragged continually about his sexual exploits and was an immensely disloyal husband to both of his wives.
The book is a very sad one, largely due to its protagonist. One knows that Evel Knievel will have a lot of success, let it go to his head, and then waste his money on women and luxuriant living, ending up a parody of himself and in trouble with the law. The real high point of Evel’s career was his attempt to leap the Snake River Canyon. After that, his career literally jumped the shark, and he ended up in jail for beating someone unconscious with a bat because the man wrote an honest but unpleasant book about him. Far from being a lasting celebrity and hero to children lasting for generations, Knievel sabotaged himself with his moral failings, his arrogance, and his basic and total lack of respect for the truth and for other people. Nearly everyone who knew him thought him a lout. Writers savaged his career, looking sympathetically at canyons and sharks as opposed to Knievel himself, who nonetheless saw himself as the last great American gladiator, even if he was from beginning to end a total fraud with a thin veneer of superficial charm and not much else of substance to offer.
 See, for example: