Evel Knievel Jumps the Snake River Canyon… and Other Stories Close to Home
By Kelly Jones
Ninth Avenue Press: June 4, 2014
$12.00, 184 pages
As someone who devours a steady diet of literary fiction, I occasionally need a change of pace, a palate-cleanser between dark or heart-rending books. Recently, while reading David Abrams’ blog, The Quivering Pen, I came across the work of Kelly Jones. While she is better known for historical mysteries set in European capitals, such as The Woman Who Heard Color, The Lost Madonna, and The Seventh Unicorn, she too wanted a change of pace before he next novel, Lost and Found in Prague, was published. Evel Knievel Jumps the Snake River Canyon and Other Stories Close to Home is the result.
Jones grew up in Twin Falls, Idaho and currently lives in Boise. In this novella and five stories, she revisits the haunts of her youth and captures lightning in a bottle. The title story expertly mixes nostalgia for a lost time and place with a clear-eyed view of what it’s like to be a 10-year-old boy going through a difficult time.
In the 97-page title piece, set in the summer of 1974, Jones tells the story of Pick, who has returned with his mother to her hometown of Twin Falls from Portland. His father died in the Vietnam War, and they have struggled and moved frequently in the years since. She intends to leave Pick with her mother, whom Pick calls Grandma Grace, and her college-age brother, Uncle Buddy, while she moves to Seattle to attempt yet another new start.
Against a backdrop of social upheaval from the war and the Watergate scandal, Pick reluctantly settles in for what he expects to be a boring and lonely summer. Jones pulls you right into Pick’s little world with her detailed sense of time and place, sympathetic tone, and accurate sense of how it feels to be the new kid, yet again.
Pick tentatively makes friends with some wild kids who are jumping their bikes over trash cans in the alley behind Grandma Grace’s house. He learns his way around town and spends a lot of time at the city pool, where he also experiences his first crush on a beautiful young diver.
He observes the adults in his world, especially Buddy, who has recently broken up with his long-time girlfriend and returned home from the University of Idaho to spend the summer working and riding his motorcycle. Grandma is a non-nonsense fifty-something widow with short salt-and-pepper hair who is determined to turn Pick into a responsible young man with her “work first, play later” approach and long list of daily chores.
The catalyst for Pick’s summer of change is the announcement of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel that he will attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon outside of town in early September. Buddy gets a job doing security at the jump site and promises to sneak Pick in for the big event. While Knievel’s endeavor provides Buddy with work, it provides Pick and his friends with dreams and inspiration, and they spend much of the summer attempting increasingly risky jumps with their bicycles.
Reading this novella brought me back to the simpler times of my youth (I turned 15 in the summer of 1974), when a bike was a ticket to freedom. I left my house in the morning and wasn’t expected to return until it started to get dark. (And I drank water out of a garden hose and lived to tell!)
Jones tells an endearing story about a sensitive and sensible young man growing up and slowly learning some painful truths about the adult world.
The five stories on offer here are a little darker. They concern characters that have reached turning points in their lives as they progress from confusion to constructive action.
“Saving Johanna” follows a down-on-her-luck recovering alcoholic caught in an abusive relationship who finds mercy and a second chance through her community service at the local library.
“The Last Husband” tells of Olive and her five husbands, the last of whom has just died. She is muddling along in her winter loneliness and takes advantage of the arrival of spring to replant the garden. To her surprise, her only living ex-husband, Eddie, shows up. Eddie had once tried to kill Olive and spent some time in prison. But that was a long time ago. They chat and get caught up, and Eddie invites Olive to go fishing with him. When Olive’s daughter from an earlier marriage, Geri, finds out that Eddie has reappeared, she is not happy. But Olive has other ideas in what could be her last spring.
“A Lesson on How to Attract a Man” returns to childhood friendships, in particular that one girl who was ahead of all the others. Meg and Renee haven’t seen each other in years. When they meet for coffee, their conversation turns to their time in eighth grade at St. Martin’s and their classmate, Jaynie Aniston, who always seemed to be surrounded by boys. What was she saying to them that always made them smile and laugh? The other girls were mystified by Jaynie’s secret power over the boys. Through a series of school dances that year, Meg and Renee learn Jaynie’s secret. And it has lasting effects on Meg’s life.
“I Don’t Come Here Often” gives us a close look at the quirky customers of a Boise Laundromat. The closing story, “Wyoming” follows 12-year-old Jen, who has persuaded her 16-year-old neighbor, Jeremy, to help her run away. Jen’s mother died four years earlier, and her father has just remarried. Not surprisingly, Jen resents and despises her new stepmother, Lillian. Jeremy has an old truck, and is tired of being his drunken father’s punching bag, so they decide to head east to Wyoming. But the journey doesn’t go quite as Jen had planned. Perhaps she isn’t as independent as she’d thought. And perhaps Lillian isn’t really an evil stepmother.
Evel Knievel Jumps the Snake River Canyon and Other Stories Close to Home is a fast and pleasantly bumpy ride through the lives of idiosyncratic characters trying to find their way across one kind of chasm or another.