Throughout Shawn Vestal’s riveting first novel, set in the 1970s American West, the disembodied voice of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel intones as if it was prophesy uttered from on high. “We believed, America. We believed we could do anything we tried to do … We believed that in saying these things, we were already making them true.”
Evel and his soaring motorcycle assume godlike influence over Jason Harder, an Idaho teenager growing disillusioned with his Mormon farm life. When his grandfather takes Jason to watch Evel’s daredevil attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in 1974, the boy’s life is transformed. He and his Shoshone friend, Boyd, race dirt bikes over small jumps in the desert sage, and they dream of bigger, wilder things.
Two states south, in Arizona, 15-year-old Loretta, daughter of strict fundamentalist Mormon parents, is about to take flight herself with her secret “gentile” boyfriend, Bradshaw. When her parents catch her returning home at dawn, she is abruptly married off to prominent patriarch and polygamist Dean Harder.
Evel Knievel, of course, fails in his leap. He and his “Skycycle” parachute into the river canyon like a falling star. But his star-spangled audacity electrifies Jason and sets the stage for a gripping coming-of-age story set among the social rigidity and utter strangeness of rural Mormon culture.
Spokane-based author and Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal won critical acclaim and a PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for his debut story collection, “Godforsaken Idaho.” Mormonism visited itself mightily upon those stories. And Mormon fundamentalism, plucked directly from the outlaw hamlet of Colorado City, Arizona, here called Short Creek, sets this novel spinning on its edge.
Patriarch Dean Harder is Jason’s uncle. He flees Arizona under the shadow of unorthodox business practices and moves his large family onto the farm adjoining that of Jason’s family in Idaho. Among the newcomers is Uncle Dean’s child bride, Loretta.
Loretta is a complex and compelling character. Despite her forced marriage, she maintains a fierce but cautiously guarded independence and an irrepressible desire for freedom. Jason, for his part, has “been coming unstuck from the church for months, questioning, doubting, and bored.” He soon becomes smitten, and Loretta sees a possible way out.
Adolescence anywhere traverses a rocky, chaotic landscape. Vestal gives readers an intimate and revealing look at growing up within the constrictions of an overbearing religious sect. To Jason, his uncle’s family is an embarrassment.
“(T)hey magnify everything he dislikes about his family and his church and town, the limited horizons, the boring reverence, the feeling that the people who were considered wise were in fact stupid. And … the fear that they are him.”
“We are no longer in Short Creek, among the righteous,” Dean sternly admonishes his children. “Satan is in control out here.”
When escape ensues, it is dramatic: Jason, Loretta and Boyd in a Chrysler LeBaron speeding south into the desert night. Can Knievel himself be far behind?
As with his earlier short stories, Vestal’s characters are superbly drawn in this compelling novel. Even Evel philosophizes warmly over his many failed leaps and crashes.
Vestal has launched a thrilling motorcycle leap of his own, bold, fast-paced and seemingly headed for oblivion. Readers are advised to hang on for a wild and rewarding ride.
Tim McNulty lives and writes on the Olympic Peninsula. This review originally appeared in the Seattle Times.
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