By Shawn Vestal
There is a time in every person's life, even the ones who seem to be least capable of it, when they wonder and marvel at such questions as: Stay or go? Obey? Submit? Be one's own true self? What is that?
These are the kinds of questions the characters in Shawn Vestal's audacious new novel, Daredevils, ask. Except for Evel Knievel. He's not the question-asking type. He's counterpoint and fulcrum to the novel's characters, which are teenagers and their families in their bleak little towns in the American West of the 1970s. He is Greek chorus and tipping point, and he is as vital a part of this novel as any other character.
But back to the beginning. Loretta is a teenager in a small Arizona town in the 1970s. She wants more than the long, empty days of work that she sees her parents endure. She wants a brightly colored Mustang, Tussy makeup, all the good things in life. Her future is, Vestal writes, a specific place, a determined destination to which she wants to fly. She also is intrigued by Bradshaw, a local bad boy who wants her. She sneaks out at night to ride with him and share kisses with him. Her parents are hard-working, faithful Mormons on the outskirts of a community where those who are in power are outsiders to the rest of the world. When she is caught, she ends up a sister wife.
At the same time, Jason, up in southern Idaho, is a child of hard-working Mormon parents on a diary farm. The work is unrelenting, the life filled with aching bones and sore knees and "the never-ending boredom of the righteous and the self-righteous" as the author notes. So is the faith of his parents, especially his mother. They don't reject the world but they don't celebrate its excesses either. And they certainly don't approve of their only son going down to Twin Falls to watch Evel Knievel try to jump over the Snake River canyon.
To Jason's delight, his grandfather takes him, lying to Mom and Dad about where they're going. It's Jason's first clue that adults lie to each other and that the ways men navigate the rules are not the same as the way they try to adhere to eternal truths. While Jason wants to believe that the stunt is the equivalent of reaching for the stars and feels he has crashed to Earth when it failed, his grandfather is amused that the stuntman got a comeuppance and so will be less likely to believe his own spiel.
The tug of war between yearning and dashed hopes is not only the story of Loretta and Jason, it's also the story of Dean, the man that her parents gave her to, and Dean's wife, Ruth, who was one of the children taken from a polygamist community years ago. That both characters are seen from the inside as fully human is but one of the strengths to Vestal's writing. Ruth is an exceptionally complex character who, with just a few musings, shows how someone can live a life that looks horrific from the outside without being a monster or a victim. Jason's best friend, Boyd, one of the few Native Americans at school, delivers in three paragraphs a blistering takedown of ignorant white privilege while retaining his own important place in the story.
The insights with which the characters are crafted are used to guide them through their journeys that weave in and out together. Dean is brother to Jason's father. Bradshaw goes to work for Dean. The teenagers may or may not run into a famous person. It all fits together brilliantly.
And through it all, there is the voice of Evel Knievel. In the 1970s, especially in the inner West of which Vestal writes, Knievel was a genuine hero. He was as big a folk hero as any of the colorful 19th century figures. And you never did know where he might show up. He was always getting into fights and crazy things seemed to happen in hotels all the time.
One of the reasons that Vestal's novel works so well is the authenticity not only of his characters, but of the time and place in which they exist. Vestal not only beats the sophomore curse, following up his vibrant, PEN/Bingham-winning Godforsaken Idaho, with Daredevils, he shows he is one of the leaders of a grand moment in the current writing coming out of Spokane, Washington. This is not only where Vestal lives and works at the local newspaper, Spokane is also home to Jess Walter, Kris Dinnison and Sharma Shields. Sherman Alexie is a Spokane Indian, but he dumped it for Seattle years ago. (If you're from Spokane, this moving to Seattle thing is a big thing. Spokane still loves him though.)
To not only cement the novel in its time but to make it timeless, there are occasions when Knievel's voice sounds like the beginning of Don DeLillo's Underworld, speaking in your voice, American:
What do you call that, when the world guides you toward its purpose? We believed, America. We believed we could do anything we tried to do. We believed we could do anything we said we would do. We believed in ourselves and the things we were saying. We believed that in saying these things, we were already making them true.
And how does that work out? There is but one way:
... the more we were granted, the more we hungered. The more we starved. Until there was nothing that could ever feed us.
The Greek chorus that is Knievel blames it on trying to give other people what they want, and how other people will always mess things up for you.
The way this plays out for the various characters who have tried not to rely on each other even while not being able to stop caring for each other is fascinating. There is hunger and hubris and reaching out beyond oneself in ways both pure and selfish.
©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission