Not many books boast the yearnings of teenage boys, the plight of underage Mormon sister wives and impassioned monologues from Evel Knievel between the covers of a single volume.
Set primarily during the 1970s in Short Creek (subsequently renamed Colorado City), Ariz., and Gooding, Idaho, Shawn Vestal’s “Daredevils” features all of the above in a deftly rendered coming-of-age story about faith and the loss thereof, taking risks and the fissures in our idols and illusions that all too often leave them in shards.
Vestal, who grew up in a large, devout Mormon family in Gooding and now resides in Spokane, won the 2014 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction for his short story collection, “Godforsaken Idaho,” for which he was also awarded a Pushcart Prize.
“Daredevils” takes turns alternately following its chief protagonists, antagonists and side characters around, and the reader watches events unspool from their varying perspectives, interspersed with first-person rants from Knievel addressing “an adoring nation.”
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The story focuses primarily on 15-year-old Loretta, who, on being apprehended upon her return from a clandestine visit with her vile beau, Bradshaw, is married off by her family to fundamentalist Mormon Dean Harder, and forced to reside with him, his first wife, Ruth, and their brood of children in Short Creek. In the course of her captivity, Dean’s family travels to Gooding, where Loretta meets Jason, Dean’s nephew, and his best friend, Boyd. Thus the seeds of rebellion are sown, culminating in a transgressive road trip on which the youngsters will ultimately experience the thrills and pitfalls of adulthood and forging one’s own destiny.
The villainous Bradshaw, however, does not take kindly to Loretta’s desertion, and he sets out after the teenage trio with plans to even the score. Along the way, a man who may or may not be Evel Knievel—and who teaches Jason some hard lessons about putting people on pedestals—makes a cameo in Elko, Nev., and Jason and Boyd discover firsthand the difference between loving a person and loving the idea of that person when they both vie for the elusive Loretta’s affections.
The book—beautifully written—builds a slow crescendo, which rewards the patient reader. Vestal is adept at getting inside his characters’ heads and relaying their worlds from their points of view. His consummate skill in creating a sense of time and place transports readers to the 1970s and the dusty desolation of small desert towns. Readers who find animal cruelty difficult to stomach might struggle with this one, given Dean’s solution to the abundance of the local jackrabbit population, but this storyline is used to great effect to illustrate both Dean’s hubris and fallibility and Jason’s escalating disillusionment with the narrow confines of his devout existence in rural Idaho.
While it certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel with respect to the coming-of-age novel, and falls somewhat predictably along well-worn genre lines, “Daredevils” is a solid, poetic, engaging contribution to the canon and well worth reading.
Allison Floyd is a library assistant in the Serials Department of Boise State University’s Albertsons Library.