|Literary: Book Review
The Holy Scripture of our Life
Shawn Vestal's Daredevils
It’s 1975 and teen-ager Jason Harder, who lives on a dairy farm in Gooding, Idaho, has a lot to be embarrassed about. There’s the whole religion thing: the reactionary faith of his community with its lengthening list of end-times indicators, including “nudity and sex talk in movies,” the Equal Rights Amendment, the fall of Saigon, communists and “jackrabbits eating farmer out of house and home.” Then there’s Jason’s Uncle Dean, a soured polygamist from Short Creek on the Utah/Arizona border, who has just moved to town with his wife and kids along with a mysterious girl named Loretta whom his uncle claims is his wife’s visiting niece. The family has an “air of self-imposed privation,” but Jason finds the young Loretta, his uncle’s secret second wife, hopelessly alluring.
Embarrassing as well is the “bunny bash” Uncle Dean has called–a brutal, community event where jackrabbits are routed out with brushfire along a temporary fence to a pen where boys and men with baseball bats do their bloody, adrenalized deeds while angry protesters as well as the press are gathered around and making a scene.
No wonder, then, that Jason has taken a shine to Evel Knievel who, in Shawn Vestal’s debut novel Daredevils (Penguin Press), reappears in the narration using the royal “we” under the recurring heading “Evel Knievel Addresses an Adoring Nation.” Two years earlier Jason’s now-dead grandfather detoured from church with his grandson to see the motorcyclist attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in nearby Twin Falls on the steam-powered X-2 Skycycle: “A little mischief is good for the soul,” he remembers his grandfather telling him, “leveling a thick, crooked finger toward the road ahead, as if that were mischief right there, fat and smiling on Highway 10. He says, ‘There’s nothing wrong with this’.”
Set in the rural Mountain West, Daredevils is a coming-of-age story, as bone-crunching as Knievel’s crash at Vegas’ Caesar’s Palace or England’s Wembley Stadium. Yet the book, released this month, is scented with the sagebrush and dairy farms of high desert America; riven with the tenacious, arid religion of a particularly American kind; and beholden to America’s dick-thumping fix on celebrities, like Knievel.
The novel is an unparalleled tale of the country’s excess, lunacy and delusion—as personified by the loutish Knievel who describes “the best kind of love, the only kind of love [. . . as] wild, momentary, complete.” At the same time the book’s compelling cross between Napoleon Dynamite and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas somehow grounds the reader in a tender and hard-won decency in which Loretta and Jason along with the young Native American Boyd—in search of his father and an entree into the American Indian Movement of the era—head out on the road in a stolen Chrysler LeBaron.
Vestal has already favored us with his eclectic, illuminating short fiction in Godforsaken Idaho (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), winner of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. In that inventive debut collection, he seems to have singlehandedly advanced both Western and Mormon literature in nine stories that careen from a hellish kind of heaven in “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death” to a lapsed Latter-day Saint faced with his doppelganger in the form of a persistent missionary. In the final triptych of the collection, the stories kick into high sectarian gear, ending with “Diviner,” in which founding Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, smitten with treasure hunting, appears in one of his most arresting if not generous portraits.
In Daredevils, Vestal not only judiciously sets his story of religionists and misfits, pedophiles and imposters in the region (others have done that, including most recently David Kranes in his The Legend’s Daughter, also set in Idaho) but he makes no apology about informing all of it through the marrow-deep impulses of what is arguably the civilizing force of that region: the religion of Smith and Brigham Young. It’s as if Vestal has recovered the revelatory “peep stones” of the author’s childhood faith, thrown them into the bottom of a darkened hat, which Smith reportedly did, and then started writing: a gift to the general reader who knows little more about the country’s most “successful” indigenous religion than David Archuleta and HBO’s Big Love.
Wisely, Vestal is first and foremost a skillful writer of authentic exposition and trenchant dialogue. His main character, Loretta, along with her “sister wife” Ruth, share a stinging grief, the younger woman’s based on her attempt to imagine the story of her young life under patriarchal faith, and the older woman’s based on the real event of the 1953 Short Creek raid of polygamists by Federal agents which left her, as a child, traumatized. But Vestal never allows the reader to believe that any of this arguably extreme communal behavior, saturated as it is with prophets and gold, endless prayers and “the ugly tether of family” exists anywhere other than on a cultural continuum with throat-slitting revelators on one end and the likes of Mitt Romney on the other.
In the end, this wild, epic, noir-ish tale posits its own prophet whose pronouncements throughout speak to an America ruthlessly defensive about, in the words of Knievel, the “perversion of our story, the holy scripture of our life.”
“When did we first think of jumping the canyon?” he says in the opening address to the “adoring nation.”
It seems now that we always thought it. That it was always there for us to think. 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 ourself and the things we were saying. We believed that in saying these things, we were already making them true.
How Shawn Vestal in Daredevils navigates his charges through such a determined promised land as that is the stuff of one of the most propulsive, deeply interrogative novels of late.
Up and Upcoming: To The North
Exhibition Listings in Northern Utah
Meyer Gallery UPCOMING: Emerging Artists Primaver Featuring 50 New Works by 27 Emerging Artists. A juried invitational show curated by Brittany Scott, it features regional artists working in a variety of media and styles.
Kimball Art Center UP: Wasatch Back Student Art Show. The annual Wasatch Back Student Art Show (WBSAS) was created to showcase the artwork of aspiring young artists, grades K-12, living in Wasatch and Summit Counties. This year’s exhibition will feature artwork that incorporates the theme “In the Year 3000". This year 450+ students representing 10 schools have participated creating 280 pieces.
Take Flight: Alaska From Above. Located in the Kimball’s new Café Gallery, Take Flight: Alaska from Above presents stunning photographs by Mark Reed. From the remote Arctic plains to the old-growth forests of the coastal southeast, Alaska's vast landscapes encompass much of America's last remaining wilderness, and much of it is accessible only by air.
CODA Gallery UP: Figurative paintings by Michael Steirnagle.
Brigham City Museum of Art and History UP: Building History II. Fifty historic photographs by an unknown photographer depicting pioneer in the Box Elder Creek area from around 1900. The exhibit includes photos of early Victorian and log homes including the still-standing Mayor's home; shops that helped build the thriving community; and early churches of different faiths.
Eccles Community Art Center UP: The 2016 Utah Watercolor Society (UWS) Spring Open Exhibition will include eighty-three water media paintings selected from 167 submissions. AND: Russian born artist, Yevgeniy Zolotsev is a master of wet on wet watercolor paintings. Born in Tambov City, Russia, he studied at Tambov Art College receiving his Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1990. The Carriage House Gallery at the Eccles Community Art Center has represented his work since 2005. "Zolotsev's work is filled with rich, vibrant, colors, Assistant Debra Muller explains. "His paintings include natural themes and Russian architecture."
HOWA GALLERY UP: Mixed-media paintings by Tami Sanders.
BDAC UPCOMING: Annual Statewide Competition.