The subtitle of Evel, Leigh Montville’s biography of Evel Knievel, describes him as an “American Showman, Daredevil, and Legend,” and those things are undoubtedly true. But there’s also no doubt that four-word description is much more reader-friendly than other descriptions Montville might have used for Knievel: thief, child abuser, wife beater, bigot, bully, liar and con man.

Montville does a good job of capturing the complex man behind the legend, the events and the town, Butte, Mont., that helped shaped Knievel.

Butte was more like “a gritty piece of Pittsburgh” or Youngstown, Ohio, than a traditional western town. Butte was a mining town, where the short-term prospects were weighted toward serious injury or death, and the long-term prospects were even worse.

And life outside the mines catered to men willing to risk those kind of odds. The bars never closed, prostitution was legal, and fistfights were an accepted way of resolving a dispute.

Montville shines in unearthing these sorts of details.

Take his description of Knievel’s Snake River Canyon episode. It includes the Skycycle, “a homemade piece of **** that three smart kids with an Encyclopedia Britannica and a whole lot of spare time could have made.” There’s also the tale of how Bob Arum, at loose ends after “competitor and sworn enemy” Don King snagged the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman fight, ended up promoting the Snake River jump.

Montville’s reporting is thorough and detailed. He delves through stories of Knievel stealing from friends and co-workers, of domestic abuse and of innumerable affairs.

The only problem with this book is that the man revealed in these details is almost completely unlikable.


By Leigh Montville; Doubleday, $27.50, 416 pp.