'Daredevils,' by Shawn Vestal, takes risks but lands safely

The novel encompasses deep questions about faith and meaning in prose that is never heavy-handed.

Daredevils By Shawn Vestal Penguin Press 320 pp.

In recent years there have been a number of really good novels set in America in the 1970s. Rachel Kushner’s "The Flamethrowers" comes to mind, as does "City on Fire" by Garth Risk Hallberg and "The Lowland" by Jhumpa Lahiri.

So how do you make your own book stand out among others covering similar terrain?

Using Evel Knievel as a plot device doesn’t hurt.

Shawn Vestal intersperses the plot of Daredevils, his debut novel, with excerpts from a fictional speech that Evel Knievel gives to an “adoring" America in the early 1970s. That structure suits the novel’s hard-driving nature, which starts off like a bolt of lightning and doesn’t let up.

At the core of the narrative is a young teenager named Loretta. She has dreamed her entire life of leaving the Mormon faith and creating her own future, one that is not defined by the religious restrictions of her parents and faith community.

That description could be easily cast aside as the plot of a young adult novel, but in Vestal’s capable hands, Loretta's concerns are given a mature voice. Her thoughts, feelings, and actions are treated respectfully, even if they are rash and immature at times.

Loretta’s dreams of escape and Evel Knievel’s speeches never intersect, but they wrestle with the same question of what truth is, and where our faith should be placed.

But the prose in "Daredevils" is light and fast-moving, never weighty, even giving the subject matter. Paragraphs leap over and upon themselves, one idea spinning into the next. It is, quite simply, a truly good read, immediately and consistently absorbing.      

As "Daredevils" progresses, Evel’s speeches begin to take on an almost religious quality. It is as if he is not merely speaking, but preaching. In one of those fictional speech excerpts, for example, he says, “The things we said, the prayer in them, the calling forth of them, the things we said [entered] the air as sound and sign.” He is aware of his power to inspire and move both individuals and crowds to action.

This quality is vitally important for Loretta’s story, as she, and others who she encounters during her journey through the Mormon Church, are beginning to move away from their faith in organized religion.

The spectacle of Evel’s death-defying stunts inspires them to believe in him, and to also seek meaning outside material means of worship. That doesn’t mean, of course, that some of the young men and women that Loretta encounters don’t still wrestle with their belief in God. Loretta herself continually walks the difficult line between accepting what she has always been taught to believe, and her own developing values. Sometimes the two easily coincide; in other instances, she is at a crossroads.

Vestal teases out this mental battle throughout the narrative. Although the 1970s time period is well defined the feelings that Loretta experiences are universal: isolation, frustration, and loneliness, yes, but also joy and happiness. Her story is a timeless one.

In the acknowledgements, Vestal mentions how thoroughly he researched Evel Knievel, and it shows – especially when Loretta and two of her friends, Jason and Boyd, come across someone who may or may not be the stuntman himself.

The buildup to that moment tilts the novel’s thematic focus. Suddenly the question of whether one should have faith or not is no longer as open a question; instead, "Daredevils" begins to suggest that it is vastly more important to have faith in oneself than in other individuals or a higher power. It is the group’s brief encounter with that man, who embodies many of their pent-up hopes and dreams, that both unspools and solidifies their relationships to each other and themselves.

The novel’s middle third shifts to a scenario where Loretta is powerfully in control of her own destiny. The first third of the book witnessed her either at home with her parents, or as a “sister wife” to a man who is several years her senior. Until this point, we have not seen her assume full control of herself and her future, and the change feels jarring at first. It is almost as if the character that we have come to expect, and relate to, is a completely different person. But Vestal pulls off the transition so effortlessly that although it sneaks up on you, it feels authentic.

At first, it may be difficult to see where the Mormon Church and Evel Knievel could intersect. But "Daredevils" lines up those narrative buses, takes that leap – and soars.

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