The 1970s, that most unjustly derided of decades, is evoked with intimate detail in this coming-of-age story set in an American West that is expansive with possibility yet constrained in imagination.
It's July, 1974. While President Richard Nixon is a month away from resigning in disgrace, 15-year-old Loretta dreams of a life beyond the limits imposed by her rigidly pious Mormon family in the dusty Arizona hinterlands. But just when she’s poised to break away with her secret “Gentile” boyfriend, Bradshaw, Loretta’s transgressions are found out, and her parents, believing her “soul [to be] in peril,” force her to marry Dean Harder, a fundamentalist and polygamist with an already plentiful family. Later that same auspicious summer, Dean’s teenage nephew Jason sneaks away from church with his Mormon grandpa to join the rabble watching Evel Knievel’s attempt to vault the Snake River Canyon in a rocket-powered “skycycle.” The jump fails, but Knievel’s audacity makes a resounding impression on Jason, whose path intersects with Loretta’s a year later in Idaho. Sensing in each other the same yearning to leap out of their respective cul-de-sacs of quiet desperation, they, along with Jason’s best friend, Boyd, a comparably restive if more outgoing Native American teen, set off in a LeBaron sedan for Nevada and points south for release from their lives—and, though Loretta doesn’t tell her fellow travelers, for Dean’s secret stash of gold. Vestal, who established a reputation for depicting this physical and psychic terrain in his short-story collection, Godforsaken Idaho (2013), intersperses these incidents with funny, persuasively rendered monologues by Evel Knievel himself, speaking throughout as the wounded, embittered, and caustically eternal voice of anyone whose yearning to defy his or her own fate is thwarted as much by his or her own hubris as by fate itself. Vestal also leaves you with the funny feeling that this may not be the last we see of these thrill-seeking kids—or their would-be spoilsports.
This debut novel captures the flailings and flights of hapless dreamers with prose that throbs like the strings of an electric bass playing its sad heart out in a near-desolate landscape.