Daredevils, by Shawn Vestal

It wasn’t so horrible. Nothing ever is.

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Loretta is a fifteen-year-old Mormon girl, bored out of her wits in Short Creek, Arizona, circa 1974. All that keeps her going is the illicit thrill of sneaking out of the house to meet her forbidden boyfriend, Bradshaw—although Bradshaw, who’s both a good deal older and a good deal dumber than Loretta, is starting to lose a bit of his shine, too. He’s convinced they belong together and wants to run away; Loretta, with a shrewd sense of his myriad character failings, has been putting him off. As it turns out, she doesn’t have to decide whether to stay or go, because she’s caught by her father at the end of chapter one. Her parents, horrified by her rebelliousness (and, really, by what they see as her harlotry), decide to solve the problem by marrying her to Dean Harder, a fellow Mormon albeit one with a more fundamentalist bent: Loretta will be his second wife.

Not long after their marriage (which, Dean promises Loretta’s father, won’t be consummated until she’s sixteen; the quotation above is from the night of Loretta’s sixteenth birthday, after Dean comes to her room to assert his marital rights), Dean’s father dies. Estranged from his siblings for much of his life, Dean moves his wives and children back up to Idaho to assert his right over the family farm. There, Loretta will meet Jason, Dean’s nephew, and events will bring them—along with Jason’s part-Shoshone friend, Boyd—to taking the drastic step of running away from their own lives.

You could be forgiven for expecting those two paragraphs to comprise the first forty or so of the book’s pages, and for the rest of the novel to follow Loretta, Jason, and Boyd on their picaresque road adventure. That’s not how Shawn Vestal structures his novel, though. He’s much more interested in getting us to understand how people manage to live like this, how the weight of community expectations and disappointed hopes and pure dumb venal humanity makes people what they are. He’s interested, too, in subtly but constantly undermining our beliefs about characters. Loretta, for instance, is (obviously) young and good-looking, but she’s neither a self-conscious Lolita nor an airhead. She is, instead, world-weary (without actually being worldly) and analytical. Here she is assessing Bradshaw on page eight:

He loves to be listened to. He loves to tell her about the way he handled something, the way he has put someone in their place. He is telling her about his new boss, the turf farmer from St. George… His laugh is like a chugging motor. Why does he think she wants to hear this?

Jason, meanwhile, is a kid whose genuine innate sensitivity wars with his genuine innate cowardice. Neither is a good trait for an Idaho farm boy in the ’70s. He really does hate violence—a local cull of the pesty jackrabbits, using baseball bats, makes him physically sick—and we as readers are sympathetic towards that. Yet he also bottles important decisions, time and again, and even he is enmeshed in a block-headed patriarchal view of the world that leaves him utterly confused when he “rescues” Loretta only to find that she is the one who knows what she’s doing.

There are, as well, several chapters narrated from the point of view of Ruth, Dean’s first wife. There are only two or three of them; they’re isolated pockets of narrative, and they give us a wholly different picture of Ruth from the one that Loretta sees. They show us how such hardness, such impenetrability, can be developed—through childhood trauma, through the establishment of boundaries that identify her and her family as members of the persecuted and oppressed. (She is a survivor of the 1953 raid by the US government on the Short Creek Mormon community; you can dislike polygamy as much as the next person and still be deeply unimpressed by the way that raid was handled.) The final chapter of Ruth’s shows us the choice she made that led to Dean, shows us her determination and grit and, yes, her analytical character, in a way that reminded me of no one so strongly as Loretta. Ruth is what Loretta might have been, might still be, unless she finds a way to escape, to live outside of expectation.

In between chapters narrated from Jason’s and Loretta’s point of view, we get first-person monologues from Evel Knievel. This is less irrelevant than it sounds; Jason idolizes him. Indeed, when we first meet Jason, he’s driving with his grandfather (the one whose death precipitates Dean’s move back to Idaho) to see Knievel jump the Snake River Canyon on a rocket-propelled motorcycle. The jump fails, although Knievel survives. In fact, if you read Knievel’s Wikipedia entry, you’ll come to the conclusion that the majority of his career consisted of failures which he happened to survive. It was part of his appeal: people came to see him dare the impossible, but they also came to hope that they’d see him die. This idea—that failure, as Knievel puts it, is when you don’t try to get back up—has implications for the rest of the book. Jason is a failure, for much of it, because he doesn’t fight back, doesn’t speak out or stand up against the injustices he knows are occurring in the Harder household and at school where his friend Boyd is the butt of regular racist bullying. He’s a classic Good Guy (unlike Knievel, whose monologues include an anecdote about him beating a “faggoty” journalist half to death with a baseball bat): not actively bad or destructive, and possessed of the belief that this entitles him, metaphorically, to a cookie.

In Jason’s case, the cookie is Loretta, and one of the things that made me really, really like Daredevils—perhaps the major deciding factor—is that he doesn’t get that cookie. When the three of them run away, it’s Boyd whom Loretta is interested in (although even that is temporary), and Jason cannot square this with the reality that he’s been taught to expect from movies and television:

It has all gone wrong so quickly… She is the one flirting with Boyd. She is the one who has not looked at him with any kind of special look, any sign whatsoever… It has all been her. He keeps telling himself that he is her rescuer—because that is who he is supposed to be, that is how the story goes—and yet it has always been her.

Fifteen is not a bad age to be learning that the story does not always go the way you think it goes, although I will confess to feeling a slight pang for Jason. It is embarrassing, to be young and convinced that life is just like fiction, and to bump up for the first time against the fact that it is not, at all. He is old enough, mature enough, to be vaguely embarrassed, but he is not quite old enough or mature enough to take his ego out of the equation.

And this, from Loretta, made me want to fist-pump, with the way that Vestal captures the resigned disappointment of a very young woman who already knows that it’s a rare man indeed who won’t let you down:

She had come tonight thinking what a nice boy Jason was, what a simple clean thing, and that he and she were a team, whatever that meant, and she had thought maybe it meant something. Perhaps it would grow, this fresh, clean thing. But soon enough she saw Jason’s irritation with Boyd, saw his confusion and jealousy, and realized he was simply another part, as was Boyd, of the wide world that looked at her and wanted to turn her into something of theirs.

Loretta doesn’t have time for this, for them; she is way ahead of them already, and eventually they realize it. In Daredevils, she’s the real daredevil, the one who ends up driving into the dawn with barely any money or possessions, but with the infinite freedom of a soul that owes no one anything.

Many thanks to Tabitha at ONE Pushkin for the review copy. Daredevils was published in the UK on 5 May.

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6 thoughts on “Daredevils, by Shawn Vestal

    • Oh golly, thank you. I don’t know how I’d go about getting paid for it, honestly. (I should really speak to Rebecca @ Bookish Beck, she’d know…)

  1. It could have been just another story about Mormon polygamy and the girl escaping from it, but it sounds like the characterization is what makes this book so good. Great review!

    • Yes, totally. There’s a quiet calculation about Loretta that’s fascinating: she uses the things that happen to her to gain experience. And there’s real complexity to the men as well, despite most of them being disappointments as people: they’re very realistic.

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