page contents

by Shawn Vestal
Penguin Press

“When did we first think of jumping a canyon?” asks Evel Knievel, the famous stuntman, at the beginning of Shawn Vestal’s audacious, coming of age debut, Daredevils. Knievel’s question prompts consideration from readers, drawing us into—and becoming a part of—the action, but it’s also a metaphor for the novel at hand. Sometimes to get somewhere, we have to take a leap of faith. Daredevils follows a memorable cast of characters deciding how and when to take that risk. 

Loretta is Vestal’s memorable young protagonist. She’s a teenager living in Arizona in 1974. She technically lives inside the Mormon faith, but she sees herself as someone on the outside. Vestal writes of Loretta’s self-perception: “She is disobedient. She is headstrong.” She sneaks out of her bedroom window at night to go out with her “Gentile” boyfriend. She has plans to leave her family; she has plans to leave her faith; she has plans for a future. All of her planning is for nothing, though, because her parents catch her returning late from a night out with her boyfriend.

Daredevils picks up speed when Loretta receives her punishment. Her parents force her to marry Dean Harder, who is a much older man with kids and a wife. Loretta becomes a “sister wife,” taking on the traditional responsibilities of Harder’s household. Even more traumatic to Loretta is that she is forced to enroll in a seminary school nearby. While there, she has more feelings of isolation. Vestal writes, “Loretta feels lit from within. Neon. Like no one can stop looking at her, aglow in the dark, like she is made of fine glass tubes, easily shattered. Since she walked into that church, every moment since, even at home in her bed, she feels watched and judged and known.” Loretta is trapped, but she’s also a dreamer. No amount of pain and suffering can crush her spirit. Like Knievel, she has a canyon to jump.

If Vestal’s novel were only about Loretta’s fight to live, Daredevils would be a memorable, fine piece of fiction, but he does something more. Vestal gives us two other distinct voices. One is the aforementioned Knievel, who appears in short, sporadic sections. Knievel’s presence might seem odd, but it works. This is a man who lives on the edge and constantly takes risks. His motto of perseverance, even in the face of failure, is what motivates Jason, Dean Harder’s nephew and the other key character in Vestal’s novel, to find what his current life fails to deliver. 

Jason is a young, trapped man, who struggles to conform to the expectations the men of the Mormon faith place on him. Vestal tells us that Jason, after failing to join a ritual in clobbering a dozen or more rabbits to death, is “not of this [….] not of them.” In fact, Jason wants to completely dissociate himself not only from the men, but also from Mormonism: “He has simply taken the measure of that life, of the people in the ward, and decided he doesn’t want it. He wanted to be different, and he wanted other people to know he was different, and by the time he recognized this, he already was different.” 

It’s no surprise that Loretta and Jason’s quests collide, and the two must work secretly and quickly to figure out how to escape. 

Vestal plants his story about dreamers and outsiders firmly in the American West with descriptions that are consuming in their vividness: “The summer nights in blue and black, filled with plump, spiny stars and the floral waft of alfalfa and irrigated fields.” In Daredevils, readers can feel the heat and the dust just as easily as they can relate to Loretta and Jason’s familiar feelings of angst and longing for something different. 

Vestal’s novel is hard to put down. These characters are consuming because they seem so alive and real. Vestal hits many essential classic literary themes—isolation, loneliness, the meaning of freedom, religion and faith, choices and responsibilities—that Daredevils makes a strong case for joining the contemporary list of great American novels.

The pacing in Daredevils is quick—even rapid. The dialogue is snappy. Scenes burn quickly and fade into new landscapes with smooth transitions.  

Near the end of Daredevils, Evel Knievel says, “What it comes down to, at the end of the day when the horses are back in the barn, is just taking things, taking life, taking what-have-you, whatever, and just holding it. Just…. seizing it.” What a perfect summation of the story of the restless spirits of Loretta and Jason. Daredevils is an entertaining and bold novel that proves that life can be anywhere if we are willing to, as Evel Knievel says, seize it.