“What you need is a way in,” the scrappy motorcycle stuntman Evel Knievel tells an “adoring nation” in Shawn Vestal’s powerful novel, Daredevils, which opens amid the canyons and deserts of the American West in the sun-streaked ’70s, during the dying days of the Nixon administration and the last months of the Vietnam War. Although Knievel is concerned with personal, not national, glory, Vestal grants him wisdom to share. “The way in is like the ramp, like the lever, like the cocked hammer of a pistol,” Knievel explains. “The way in is always the same. You can spend years misunderstanding this, thinking that you have to find the way in for each new scenario, when it’s always the same: the way in is to act as if you’re already in. To believe it before it’s true.” This insight also works in the opposite direction, the author shows, when you’re looking not for the way in but the way out: Act as if you’re already free.
This breathtaking and brash début novel is Vestal’s second book. His first, a collection of short stories called Godforsaken Idaho, won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize in 2014. With both books, he makes his entrance as if he were already a seasoned pro, writing at full throttle and with relaxed control, showing thorough knowledge of his terrain and a sure instinct for where he wants to go. A career journalist and a lapsed Mormon, Vestal published articles for decades (he still does) before turning to fiction to give his internal dramas a place to run untethered. Godforsaken Idaho tugged out the psychic knots that the Mormon faith works into the minds and lives of its practitioners — whether they be zealous, moderate, or lapsed — teasing out kinks, snapping the rope, testing its strength. In one of the short stories, “Winter Elders,” a (willingly) excommunicated Mormon lashes out at a pair of missionaries who pester him with house calls, mocking one of the miracles of their faith: an instance when hordes of seagulls descended on Salt Lake City and gobbled up a plague of grasshoppers, saving early settlers. “What a bunch of bullshit it is. I mean, birds eat bugs,” the man scoffs. But in another story, set at the same moment of avian intervention, the mocked miracle convinces a young girl named Sara that it is right and proper that she should become the “sister wife” (i.e., spouse in a polygamous Mormon marriage) of an older married man named Warren. Godforsaken Idaho‘s first story, set hundreds of years in the future, shows this very Sara Warren as the keystone matriarch of a long line. Before the gull incident, she had doubts about plural marriage, even when her mother told her, “None but the most righteous are called to live in the principle.” Does Sara’s prolific descendance mean that her choice was “right”? Yes or no, what does that imply for sister wives of later generations? Should they submit to plural marriage or find a way out? This question rumbles at the core of Daredevils.
The faithful of Vestal’s fiction — and perhaps their creator — are much preoccupied with “righteousness.” The epigram to Godforsaken Idaho quotes from the Book of Mormon: “If there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery.” Both of Vestal’s books respond to this proposition with a tacit “Oh yeah?”; but in Daredevils he finds room to enlarge upon the taunt, recording his rebuttal in the landscape and lives of his characters. Evel Knievel is not the novel’s only rebel. His addresses punctuate the stubborn, courageous journey of a Mormon teenager named Loretta toward her own liberation. These two contrasting portraits of American defiance offset and spur each other like cars in a drag race.
Loretta, the youngest in a large family of small-town mainstream Mormons (they “dressed like real people” and watched TV), had the bad luck to be born as her father was returning to the rigorous fundamentalism of his childhood. At the time of her baptism (at age eight), the elderly parents move back with their daughter to the tiny polygamist community where they were raised. Loretta does not like the braids and dowdy clothes she must now wear, nor the submissive behavior she must display. As she grows into adolescence, she dreams of a future of “fast cars and makeup and shining tall buildings that glow at night and cigarettes and cocktails and every forbidden thing,” but knows she must bide her time; she is still too young to buck the will of her family and community. Stealthily, she acts out, mulls escape.
When her father catches her one night, dressed in her sole pair of “worldly” jeans, sneaking into her bedroom window after a joyride with a cocky teenager named Bradshaw, he decides it’s time to marry her off. At fifteen, still a virgin, Loretta will be joined in plural marriage to a father of seven named Dean Harder, whom she finds “ugly and repellent, an oaf.” Harder, greedy for gold and for Loretta’s body, speaks with phony humility of their duty to “raise a righteous seed unto the Lord” and congratulates himself on the restraint he shows in waiting to consummate this “celestial” union until his new bride’s sixteenth birthday. Loretta’s “sister wife,” Ruth, who’s only in her early thirties but is “thin, dry skinned, mouth sketched in faint wrinkles,” accepts Loretta without hostility but without joy. ” ‘Welcome to our family,’ Ruth whispers over Loretta’s shoulder, in a voice that could not possibly be less welcoming,” Vestal writes.
His evocation of Loretta’s mind-set shows astonishing perception. Other writers, even female writers, often exaggerate the sensuality of young girls, overplaying their naiveté and sentimentality and diminishing their agency. Vestal understands that a girl like Loretta can be innocent and shrewd at the same time; that her desire and self-control are mutable and can be directed by her, depending on circumstance. He captures Loretta’s protean quality so well that it may disconcert some readers who are not used to seeing the young female psyche so unhypocritically laid bare. His Loretta is immature, but she is fully realized in her incipient state. Despite her youth, she can detach herself from her physical encounters with Dean Harder, while flirting guardedly with younger men from the community who seek, sincerely or selfishly, to rescue her. Maybe she’ll choose cocky joyride Bradshaw; or Dean Harder’s naïve nephew, Jason (whose family disapproves of polygamy); or maybe she’ll go for Jason’s half-Indian school friend, Boyd; or for Evel Knievel, should he turn up. Knievel is sometimes in the area, and Jason is obsessed with him. One Sunday, Jason’s grandfather had sneaked the boy to Snake River Canyon, Idaho, to watch the stuntman jump the gorge (Knievel famously crashed but survived, in an attempt that made national news).
But maybe Loretta doesn’t want any of them, not Bradshaw, not Dean Harder, not Jason, not Boyd, not Knievel. Why should she, necessarily? What will she risk if she jumps into an uncertain but self-selected future? Vestal puts Knievel in a room with Loretta and Jason and Boyd, giving Loretta her cue. “Let me tell you,” Knievel says. “When I land that bike, it’s real.” Looking at Loretta, he says, “When I land and break those bones, you can bet your ass that’s real. I’m not perfect. I’m not saying I’m perfect. Who’s perfect? Nobody’s perfect. I’m not some kind of, whaddya call, example and whatnot. I’m not saying you should be like me, necessarily. Not everyone’s cut out for this.”
In Daredevils, Vestal sends his characters soaring across the gulf that separates the identity that confines them and the identity they would choose, letting them land roughly but firmly on the other side, broken but free.