Robert “Evel” Knievel grew up—well, spent his formative years—in Butte, Montana, “a city of fistfights and braggadocio, tall tales and sporting propositions…a city where alcohol made the wheels go round.” To the manner born, he became a burglar, extortionist, robber, larcenist, and insurance salesman, all as a lad before graduating to mean drunk, pathological womanizer, wife beater, child beater, bigot, anti-Semite, and blustering boor. He also jumped a motorcycle over things, starting with a box of rattlesnakes (knocking it over, they slithered after him), then on to fountains, cars—sixteen Toyotas, seventeen Subarus, eighteen Mercury Cougars, nineteen Datsuns—trucks, London double-decker buses, a tank of sharks, a river canyon.

His crashes were the foundation of his success; his body was a busted-up mess. So was his life. Montville, with terrific biographies of Ted Williams and Babe Ruth—neither angels—under his belt, tells it in Evel in high-caffeinated style: “Money was everything to him. Money was nothing. Money somehow was both of the above. He was a one-man tornado when it came to money. His own. Or anybody else’s.”  

Like the man, the writing tends to consume all the available oxygen and tastes of the enamel flaking off your grinding teeth, which is much the point: Montville has recreated Knievel’s singular, appalling, infatuating, infuriating atmospheric disturbance, a man without filters who fought gravity, common sense, and common decency. It doesn’t take a surgeon to find the stinky cheese under Knievel’s skin—a vicious, insecure gasbag wearing the daredevil’s white leathers—but Montville does so adroitly, with a gathering sense of portent. For Montville knows all the stories, whole truths and half-truths and flat-out whoppers, a glowing company of low-rent engrossments that take Knievel into an unholy embrace, ending—after Knievel expires from a karmic lack of breath—not as legend, but in tawdry notoriety. A good and nasty cautionary tale for all ages, even the Age of Anti-Hero.