Book offers fresh look at Evel Knievel

BUTTE — There’s not much a tell-all book can say about Butte’s most famous son that longtime Mining City residents don’t already know.

The larcenies and burglaries? Heard those stories.

The booze and the women? Been there, done that.

He was a big jerk? Check.

He had cojones? Double check.

Despite the fact that these twice-told tales have been spinning around Butte like a tread-worn tire for decades, there’s still something fresh and exciting about Leigh Montville’s latest biography on Evel Knievel.

In “Evel,” Montville explores this larger-than-life man, who seriously identifies himself as an “explorer” on the headstone of his final resting place. In fact, the title “Evel” alone isn’t a splashy enough label for Montville’s book, so the author added, “The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel: American Showman, Daredevil and Legend.”

Readers will have to catch their breath after getting through the title, because the rest of the book is fast-paced, thrill ride through a life of success, sex and excess that is sure to leave you winded. But you already know the story. Montville writes about the stunts, the broken bones. Caesar’s Palace. Snake River Canyon. Wild Turkey and wild women. The money. Holy cow, the money! And the break-neck speed at which Knievel could spend it.

Folks from the Richest Hill on Earth won’t be too surprised by these events. However, what’s bound to endear Butte readers to “Evel” is the way Montville portrays the Mining City in his book. The city of Butte is essential to almost everything Knievel was about. Montville dedicates much of his book to Butte, examining the city, because — as it appears to the author — understanding Butte was essential to understanding Knievel.

“He was from Butte, Montana, and that was the most important fact of all in understanding how everything worked,” Montville writes in the book.

The author characterized Butte as a town, at least during Knievel’s childhood, where most of the inhabitants made their living in the dangerous profession of mining. They risked their skins crawling into the ground to reap the precious ore and spent their wages in a mad fury in the bars at night.

“Risk-takers every one of them. Butte was a city built for risk-takers from the beginning,” Montville observed about the city’s early dwellers. He asserts that Knievel inherited this trait from the city and used it to build his legend.

Montville gets many of the anecdotes and insights about Knievel through interviews with many Butte natives who knew him. He never spoke with the book’s protagonist personally. But Butte readers are sure to recognize the names of Pat Williams, Louis Markovich, Jimmy Dick, Joe Little and other Butte rats who swapped stories with the author like they would with any regular at the Met Tavern.

Montville adopts an almost conversational tone in the book. The words are delivered with the similar gruff cadence that Knievel himself used when addressing the crowd before a jump. Knowing Knievel’s reputation for exaggeration, Montville is careful to note that some of the tales in this book could be fact, could be inflated, or just a straight-up lie.

While detailing some of the highlights of the daredevil’s life, Montville will often break up the narrative by suddenly inserting “A story.” This will be followed by an anecdote told by someone who knew or worked with Knievel. These stories are tasty treats throughout the book and, somehow, manage to give insight into the enigmatic life of Knievel.

Montville has written prior best-selling books about Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, so he has an attraction to complex, larger-than-life personalities.

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So what may surprise Montana readers?

n Knievel was a company man. No joke. This high-flying, risk-taker had a square job as an insurance salesman for Combined Insurance Co. in his early life. And he was damn good at it. Became salesman of the year. If Knievel never placed his rump on a motorcycle, Montville indicates he could have had a long, successful career sell (ironically) accident insurance.

n He couldn’t ride. Yup. According to several people in the motorsports biz, Knievel wasn’t a very good motorcyclist. He couldn’t win a motocross race to save his life. But jumping a motorcycle was where Knievel shined.

n Flopped at Caesar’s Palace? Montville interviews the promoter of the fountains jump who claims he and Knievel conspired to make his injuries worse than they actually were. Sure, Knievel was banged up in that famous crash, but Montville writes that the promoter and daredevil allegedly exaggerated wounds to garner more attention. Hey, it worked.

n Knievel once held a gun to actor George Hamilton’s head and forced him to read the “Evel Knievel” movie script aloud to him. (If that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right!)

“Evel” is published by Doubleday and is available in hardback at most local book stores. It retails for $27.50.

- Reporter John Grant Emeigh may be reached via e-mail at john.emeigh@lee.net

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