Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Suicide Machine

By Chris Davis

FEBRUARY 28, 2000: 

Evel Knievel: An American Hero by Ace Collins (St. Martin's Press), 222 pp., $23.95

It was a birthday to remember. The candle at the center of the cake was shaped like the number 6, and a variety of plastic dinosaurs tromped through the shiny chocolate icing. Even with its unquestionably cool adornments I wasn't interested in the confection, and my mother had to struggle with me in order to get a snapshot of the birthday boy standing beside her sweet Jurassic masterpiece. How could I be interested in cake when I knew that buried in my pile of presents, among the find-a-word activity books and the colored pencils, was the one toy that would make me the most popular kid in school -- an Evel Knievel stunt cycle?

Everybody had lunch boxes and T-shirts with pictures of the man and his motorcycle jumping semi-trucks, or brand new cars, but only a very few kids in school actually had the greatest toy ever invented. It was the mid '70s, times were tough, and at $14 a pop, the stunt cycle was a big luxury. The red, white, and blue action figure that rode atop the coveted Hot Wheels-jumping, wheelie-popping hunk of plastic was made of rubber molded around a flexible wire frame. It could be bent into any contortion a kid could imagine (and kids can imagine more crazy contortions than the authors of the Kama Sutra) without ever breaking.

According to Ace Collins' new biography -- titled simply "Evel Knievel" -- the flesh-and-blood model for my beloved toy was not quite as flexible, but by walking away from deadly wreck after deadly wreck he certainly convinced the world that he was. Collins' prose is repetitive and as rocky as the dirt roads of Butte, Montana, where little Robert Knievel came of age. But hey, this isn't about literature, right? It's about running with the devil. Collins regularly claims that Knievel "cheated" death, but that worn-out expression hardly applies. He played death fair and square and beat him outright time after time. Magicians and illusionists "cheat" the grim reaper with their smoke and mirrors, but when it comes to the life of a daredevil, it's win or lose, baby -- cards on the table.

Butte, Montana, was a snake-mean mining town. When the gold disappeared people started mining silver, and when the silver disappeared, they struck copper. It was great for the lucky few who staked their claims early, but for the miners it was a living hell, and living is an overstatement. With all of the cave-ins, gas leaks, and sudden flooding of the mine shafts, horrible death lurked around every corner. Even at mid-century Butte maintained the rough-and-tumble feel of the Old West, where cleverness (even in crime) was respected and vigilante justice was all but encouraged. Knievel, a hyperactive child from a broken home, fit right in. He was a natural con artist who eventually graduated from petty theft and protection rackets to become an accomplished second-story man and a seasoned safecracker. Part of his criminal activity was generated by need and poverty, but ultimately, it was all about risk.

When it comes to telling the story of Knievel's famous motorcycle stunts, Collins provides the reader with great detail but little insight, allowing said reader to draw his own conclusions -- or not. The explosions and terrible accidents that litter the pages are in and of themselves most satisfying. The celebrity Knievel achieved by jumping his souped-up motorcycles over everything from cars to canyons had as much to do with his failures as it did his successes. Frequent high-velocity wipeouts and innumerable near-brushes with death stirred up the country's blood-lust and sent Knievel's star into orbit. He would get up and walk away from wrecks that looked positively fatal, and injuries that would put a normal man out of commission for months only slowed Knievel down for a matter of days -- weeks at the most. He seemed unkillable, and considering that he had almost every bone in his body broken (several more than once) and is still around to tell the tale, perhaps he was.

Though a far cry from the mechanical ultra-modern stylings of J.G. Ballard, fans of the great sci-fi innovator's novel "Crash" will find Evel Knievel irresistible as will fans of the confessions of St. Augustine. Here is a rough-hewn portrait of a man who found the thrills of crime to be more rewarding than the booty taken and who staved off boredom by aiming a ton of combustion-driven steel directly at the mouth of hell and opening up the throttle.

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