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The best biographies not only tell you what people did, they capture their personalities as well, making readers feel as if they are sitting down at a long, well-lubricated dinner with the subject. "Mark Twain: A Life" by Ron Powers is one such bio, and another is Leigh Montville's brilliant recent biography of Evel Knievel: "Evel."
Montville has long been one of my favorite sportswriters, beginning when he was a columnist for The Boston Globe. In "Evel," Montville's vibrant writing straps you to the back of the motorcycle that is Knievel's life and sends you on an exhilarating leap across a canyon of self-promotion, adventure, fame, drinking, sex, lies, crime, hospitals, lawsuits and bodies both physically and emotionally broken. Best yet, the landing won't send you rushing to the hospital with broken ribs and hips -- instead, you'll probably race to the bookstore (or electronic download) for Montville's books on Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Manute Bol and Dale Earnhardt.
I could not put down this book. I give it my highest recommendation.
Page Turner: What appealed to you about Evel?
Montville: I was working at The Boston Globe when I was a young guy and I convinced them to send me to his canyon jump over the Snake River. I was totally overwhelmed by it. My room was 40-50 miles from the jump site and I spent all this time driving back and forth from the canyon. When the Rolling Stone story came out about everything that happened, I thought, "I really blew this; I had no idea this was going on." That stuck in my head -- it was my Bill Buckner ground ball. And I've always had an eye for guys like him. I saw him in a jump one other time, in Rhode Island. He just fascinated me. When I sat down with what to do for the next book, they said they wanted someone who was really iconic. That was Evel.
Knievel's personality comes out so clearly in this. How difficult is it to get a person's personality into a biography in addition to the facts?
I had no cooperation from the family on this one. A sister and a cousin talked to me; the rest didn't. Kelly Knievel, [Evel's oldest son] put out a fatwa on me. They think there will be an Evel Knievel autobiography but they're kind of screwed there because he signed contracts for a number of autobiographies and he spent the advances but never produced any books, so there are possible lawsuits there.
I was told, "You'll hear a lot of bad things about this guy." I was surprised about his character.
You cover a lot of his bad behavior. And yet, he still has a certain appeal
There is something about a person who will take the risks, and the rest of us don't want to do that. He certainly was the personification of the American dream -- the reality TV show American dream. Wanting to make it at any cost, be famous at any cost, and he for sure paid a big cost to become rich and famous.
Is there anyone who compares to him now on the current sports scene, or pseudo sports scene?
He is like the beginning step for all those X Games sports, people like Shaun White. He was the first guy who made it popular to have extreme sports. And a bunch of them have kind of nodded his way. Mat Hoffman, the "Jackass" guys -- they nodded his way. Promotion-wise, I don't know who would be like him. Maybe Chad Ochocinco, but he's in a structured sport. Maybe Dana White, the guy with MMA. He's kind of talked his way into making it a big-time thing. I don't think there was anyone like Evel. He was outrageous. The white jumpsuit, the belt, the chest hair.
One thing that surprised was [daredevil rider] Gary Davis saying that he was amazed at how little Knievel had studied what he did. No physics, no science, no geometry -- he was a true daredevil. Gary Davis and the other guys had it figured out with math how fast you needed to be going to complete a jump. Evel would just feel it out, and if he fell short he would say, "Well, I'll go faster next time." Then he would go long and crash. He truly risked his life every jump. It's like if you put your hand on a hot stove and you got burned, you wouldn't touch the stove again. Evel would touch the stove again. And he got paid a lot of money to touch it.
He must have been in terrible pain most of his life.
He was a banged-up guy. He would have been on the DL forever.
I think I'm doing a book that will be more parochial. The working title is "Boston! Biography of a Sports Town." And I'll just throw a lot of stuff there. This could be fun, just throwing a bunch of junk in there, maybe get some Studs Terkel type of guys talking. If you want to write about Boston sports, you probably should do it now, when they've won all four titles in sports. Every current coach in the city has won a title, and I don't know if that's ever happened before.
I received another email from Borders recently, announcing that all its books are now at least 50 percent off the original price. Normally, such a sale would be tremendous news, an opportunity to stock up on a complete collection of the wonderful Terry Pluto (where did he find the time to write so many books?). But given the context, I find it depressing, like the Seattle SuperSonics holding a yard sale on team merchandise before the move to Oklahoma.
Borders declared bankruptcy last month, which means most of us are losing yet another bookstore in our cities. I live near Seattle, where the downtown once had as many bookstores as it did Starbucks. Now with the Borders bankruptcy and the closing or relocation of several independents, bookstores are as scarce downtown as Seattle team championship banners.
It's not that people aren't reading anymore, it's just that they're not reading words printed on paper. I mean, how 1450! The next thing you know, they will expect us to look at the box scores in newspapers.
There is a very annoying commercial for eReaders airing these days. In a blatant ripoff of the successful Mac/PC commercials, this one shows a woman on her way to a bookstore who gets so distracted by a hip guy with an eReader she has no desire to go to the store anymore. Watching it makes my head explode, in part because this is the way people are reacting in real life.
You love eBooks? Great. Fine. I wouldn't mind in the slightest except it affects me by killing off something I truly love. As I wrote a couple months back in my first rant against eBooks, the death of actual bookstores is a sad fallout to the whole digital book market.
I may be as old school as a satin basketball uni but I'm no Luddite. I work for a website, and I'm on the web constantly. I frequently visit several book websites and enjoy reading the reviews (though I detest readers who blast a book without reading it, simply because of the price). But those websites simply do not compare to being able to walk into a bookstore and being exposed to such an array of titles and subjects. It's the difference between watching LSU play on TV and actually tailgating at Death Valley, then sitting in the stadium right in front of the cheerleaders.
I suppose you will group me with the people who mourn the disappearance of music stores, scheduled doubleheaders, the Southwest Conference, bullpen carts, complete games and single platoon football. But when bookstores finally die out -- 10 years? Five years? Less? -- I will miss seeing thousands of books all in one place and the joy of paging through dozens of titles I would never find on the web because I would not know to look for them.
Goodbye, Borders. And let me know when Bill James' new book is 75 percent off.
OK, one prop I'll give to eBooks is the way they provide access to books which are long out of print or difficult to find in any store. Case in point, "The Courting of Marcus Dupree" by Willie Morris.
This is one of the finest sports books ever written, mostly because it is about so much more than sports. Morris returned to his home state in 1981 to write about the senior season of Dupree, who was already a Mississippi legend and a prized national recruit. More importantly, Morris writes about Dupree's small hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., site of the infamous slaying of three civil rights workers in 1964. Dupree was also part of the town's first class of black and white students who went through all 12 grades together. Thus, he becomes the anchor for a rich story of the South, race relations, high school and college football, hopes, dreams and impossible expectations. This is not only a wonderful book, it is mandatory reading for any aspiring sportswriter, as well as anyone interested in southern football culture.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter at jimcaple.
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