From the winner of 2014’s PEN Robert W. Bingham Prize, an unforgettable debut novel about Loretta, a teenager married off as a “sister wife,” who makes a break for freedom
At the heart of this exciting debut novel, set in Arizona and Idaho in the mid-1970s, is fifteen-year-old Loretta, who slips out of her bedroom every evening to meet her so-called gentile boyfriend. Her strict Mormon parents catch her returning one night, and promptly marry her off to Dean Harder, a devout yet materialistic fundamentalist who already has a wife and a brood of kids. The Harders relocate to his native Idaho, where Dean’s teenage nephew Jason falls hard for Loretta. A Zeppelin and Tolkien fan, Jason worships Evel Knievel and longs to leave his close-minded community. He and Loretta make a break for it. They drive all night, stay in hotels, and relish their dizzying burst of teenage freedom as they seek to recover Dean’s cache of “Mormon gold.” But someone Loretta left behind is on their trail...
A riveting story of desire and escape, Daredevils boasts memorable set pieces and a rich cast of secondary characters. There’s Dean’s other wife, Ruth, who as a child in the 1950s was separated from her parents during the notorious Short Creek raid, when federal agents descended on a Mormon fundamentalist community. There’s Jason’s best friend, Boyd, part Native American and caught up in the activist spirit of the time, who comes along for the ride, with disastrous results. And Vestal’s ultimate creation is a superbly sleazy chatterbox—a man who might or might not be Evel Knievel himself—who works his charms on Loretta at a casino in Elko, Nevada.
A lifelong journalist whose Spokesman column is a fixture in Spokane, WA, Shawn has honed his fiction over many years, publishing in journals like McSweeney's and Tin House. His stunning first collection, Godforsaken Idaho, burrowed into history as it engaged with masculinity and crime, faith and apostasy, and the West that he knows so well. Daredevils shows what he can do on a broader canvas--a fascinating, wide-angle portrait of a time and place that's both a classic coming of age tale and a plunge into the myths of America, sacred and profane.
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Shawn Vestal made his literary debut with Godforsaken Idaho, a story collection that won the 2014 PEN Robert W. Bingham Prize and was shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize. A graduate of the Eastern Washington University MFA program, his stories have appeared in Tin House, Ecotone, McSweeney's, The Southern Review and other journals. He writes a column for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he lives with his wife and son.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Shawn Vestal
July 6, 1974
Short Creek, Arizona
Loretta slides open her bedroom window and waits, listening to the house. She pops out the screen and slowly pulls it inside. The summer night is blue and black, filled with plump, spiny stars and the floral waft of alfalfa and irrigated fields. She swings one leg out, then the other, and sits on the sill. A tiny, muffled creak sounds, and she can’t tell if it comes from the house or the night or inside her jangled mind. She spends every day now thinking about the night, and this moment is always the same—the exhilarating passage from here to there. To the brief, momentary future. To Bradshaw.
She drops to the ground and sets off across the lawn, hunched as if trying to stay below the searching beam of a powerful light. She is wearing her jeans, the one pair her father lets her keep for chores, and her clogs. Her Gentile clothes. The mountains, red by day, stand black and craggy against the rich ink of night. Their home is on the edge out here, on the edge of the Short Creek community just as she and her family are on the edge of it—half outsiders, not yet inside the prophet’s full embrace—but that makes it easier to sneak away without being spotted by the prophet’s men. The God Squad, Bradshaw calls them. If she sees car lights, she crouches in the ditch grass until they pass, but tonight she sees no car. She walks the barrow pit for a quarter mile, grass cool on her bare ankles, to where the dirt lane runs into county road and she sees Bradshaw’s Nova on the wide roadside, pale luster along the fender, signal lights glowing like the hot eyes of a new beast coiled against the earth.
As she comes to the car, the passenger door opens, as if on its own, and the interior light blares, and there he is, Bradshaw, smile cocked on his hard, happy face. She feels it again, the sense that she doesn’t know if she loves him, or even if she likes him, because sometimes she yearns for a glimpse of him and sometimes she feels desperate to get away from him—Bradshaw, sitting there with his wrist draped on the steering wheel like a king—but what is certain is that she cannot resist his gravity. She falls toward him at a speed beyond her control.
“There she is,” he says as she slides in. “Holy hell, Lori, you are a vision.”
He leans over and presses his chapped lips against her mouth. He tastes of beer, yeasty and sour. He pulls away and looks at her searchingly, ghostly eyes somehow alight, head tilted, one curly sideburn grazed by the green dashboard glow.
“Did you miss me, sweet Lori?”
“I missed you.”
“Did you think about me a whole bunch?”
“I thought about you all the time.”
She loves how much he seems to love her. He kisses her again, cupping the back of her head with a hand. She puts her hands on his back, feels the knots of muscle there. Sometimes she thinks he is trying to press his face through hers. To consume her. She wants this, always—this sin—but when it arrives she does not enjoy it, because he loses himself. He spreads a palm on her rib cage, thumb an inch from her breast. Then closer.
They part. He breathes as if he’s been sprinting. “Did you think any more about it?” he says. He wants her to leave with him. To take off for good and put The Crick in the rearview mirror. To be together, he says. Together together.
“I did,” she says. “I want to. But I don’t think yet. I don’t think now.”
“Aww, Lori,” he says. “Don’t say that. Don’t you say that to me.” She wants to go. She wants to fly into her future, but she feels she must be very careful, must be precise and exact, or she will miss it. She is sure that her future is a specific place, a destination she will either reach or miss, and it awaits her out there somewhere away from all that is here. Away from the long cotton dresses. Away from the tedious days in church school, studying the same scriptures they study all day on Sundays. Away from her father’s stern but halfhearted righteousness and her mother’s constant ac- quiescence. And, mostly, away from the looming reality that no one ever says a word about: she is fifteen, she is eligible, she is a means now for her father to pursue his own righteousness. He cannot take another wife himself, but he can still serve the Principle— the principle of plural marriage. Celestial marriage. They have been welcoming certain brothers for dinners in their home. The men are always bright with questions for Loretta.
Bradshaw wrestles her to the seat for a while, and then they drive and talk. He loves to be listened to. He loves to tell her about the way he has handled something, the way he has put someone in their place. He is talking about his new boss, the turf farmer outside St. George.
“So he keeps handing me the eleven-sixteenths, and I keep asking for the thirteen-sixteenths, and then he does it again,” he says, slapping a hand on the dash. “I say, bud, you got your glasses on?”
His laugh is like a chugging motor. Why does he think she wants to hear this? The strange thing is, she does. She loves listening to him talk, to his strange locutions, his crudeness. So hungry I could eat the ass out of a cow, he’ll say. Shit oh dear. That smarmy bastard. He never utters a righteous word. It wasn’t all that long ago that Loretta thought he was her savior, the one who’d rescue her. She has been heading out into the night since she was thirteen, she and her friend Tonaya, meeting up with the Hurricane boys, the St. George boys, the boys the prophet had exiled. They were the crowd Loretta and Tonaya chased around whenever they could, sneaking out at night, joyriding on dirt roads, drinking beer, building bon- fires in the desert, shoplifting at the grocery store, riding in the backseat as the boys bashed mailboxes or keyed cars, coming home before dawn, climbing back in that bedroom window, back into the world where no one watched television, where they prayed con- stantly, or sat over scripture, or sang hymns, or walked to the neighbors to weed a garden. Out there, into the worldly world, and then back home, to reverence and boredom.
The night she met Bradshaw, she and Tonaya were wedged in the backseat of an old Rambler station wagon owned by one of the boys, parked outside the 7-Eleven in Hurricane looking for some- one to buy them something—a six-pack, a bottle of sweet wine. That night, it was Bradshaw. Almost immediately, when he came around the side of the store and handed the bag into the car, he looked into the back and found Loretta’s eyes. He was older than the boys she was hanging around with, but younger than the men in Short Creek, the men whose eyes she felt on Sundays at church, the men who blushed if she returned their gaze. Bradshaw didn’t blush, ever. Everything about him announced that he did not harbor a doubt—his quick, bowlegged walk, eyes of washed-out blue and angular face, and the way he was always doing something handsome and prominent with his jaw, cocking it this way or that. Soon she was meeting him alone, and every time she climbed into his car he looked thrilled and he said, “There she is,” like he was announcing something the world had long awaited.
Now, tonight, Bradshaw turns onto a dirt road and guns it, fish- tailing the Nova into the desert. They drive up into a bump of low hills where he will find a reason to stop again. It’s past midnight, almost one, Loretta guesses, and she remembers that tomorrow is Fast Sunday, the first Sunday of the month, and she has forgotten to stash something to eat.
“There’s probably nothing open now, is there?” she asks. “Open for what?”
“Some food. Anything. Tomorrow’s Fast Sunday.” “Tomorrow’s what Sunday?”
Does Bradshaw not know what Fast Sunday is? The day of fast- ing? He’s lived down here all his life.
“Fast Sunday. No eating. I get headaches if I don’t sneak something.”
Bradshaw brays laughter. “A day of no eating. You Mormons. I swear.”
You Mormons. Loretta doesn’t think of herself—of her family, of Short Creek—as Mormon, exactly, although everyone here thinks of themselves as the only true Mormons. In her mind, Mormons were what they were before they came here seven years ago. Mormons were what they were when they lived in Cedar City, went to the church on Main Street, the tan-brick wardhouse on a street with ordinary homes and a grocery store and a gas station. Mormons, she thinks, live in the real world, or at least closer to it. They had a television back then, and a radio in the kitchen. Her mother listened to country music. They dressed like real people, like worldly people—though, she knows, they were farmier and more country than Salt Lake City Mormons, the rich, blond Mormons, the ones you can barely tell are even Mormons at all. Mormons, she thinks, marry one person at a time.
They came here when she turned eight—the age for her baptism. Her father had grown up in Short Creek, on the desert border be- tween Utah and Arizona, among the polygamists and fundamentalists, but he had left as a teenager, a rebellious boy encouraged by the prophet to leave. They had lived in Cedar and Loretta’s parents raised eight children, and he worked fixing cars at the town’s auto dealership. Loretta came late and unexpected, as her father had begun turning back toward the faith he had departed and hardening against the soft ways of the mainstream church. When it came time to baptize Loretta, he found he could not do so. They moved back to The Crick—where his brothers lived, where his parents had died. You cannot exactly join this church, Loretta knows; you cannot simply show up and convert to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but because of his family and his history and his willingness to submit, her father was allowed to return, half-caste. Still, all these years later, they are not yet fully in the United Order—the inner circle of the most righteous, those living in the Principle of plural marriage—and yet are allowed to hope, to strive, probationary.
She remembers the spring night her father told them they were returning. They sat around the small kitchen table, the smell of cut grass pungent through the screen door. A Pyrex dish of hamburger casserole, a meaty stew run through with ribbons of noodle and brownish clumps of tomato, sat before them. Her mother wore an ankle-length dress, nothing like she would usually wear. An exhausted pall shadowed her face, and she did not say one word. Loretta’s father, stout and slow, spoke in the deliberate voice that made him seem dumb; his hands were flat on the table beside his plate, grooved in engine black. He answered all of her questions in a tone that made it clear the decision had been made.
“It is for your eternal soul, Loretta, that we do this,” he said. “Even if you can’t see that.”
Loretta’s mother sat twisting her hands, galaxies of red dots spreading across her face and neck. They were both so old, Loretta knew even then—like grandparents. Her father was always wearily heaving himself up and around, always groaning toward the next task, and her mother moved with slow, weary resignation. And now there she was, dressed like a sister wife, dressed the way you would see the Short Creek women dressed when they came to town. Loretta wanted her mother to say something then, to say anything at all.
Loretta has never felt right here. She hates to braid her hair hates to sit quietly while the boys run and shout. She does not want to live in one of these strange, huge families, the men orbited by constellations of wives and children. She imagines her future as something like the ads in magazines she has glimpsed in stores, in the hair salon in St. George, those times her mother has let her go. Modern clothing and fast cars and makeup and shining tall buildings that glow at night and cigarettes and cocktails and every for- bidden thing. She loved the lipstick ad with the beautiful girl in black jeans lying on the hood of a pink Mustang and smirking into the camera. The name of the lipstick like a password: Tussy.
Bradshaw’s hand is inside her blouse, crawling over her back. Her mouth is sore, her neck is tired. He puts his hand on the inside of her thigh and squeezes. He takes the skin of her neck in his teeth and bites gently, but not gently enough. “Some night I won’t be able to stop myself,” he says, breath like a furnace. “I can’t be responsible.” Sometimes he holds her wrists so hard he leaves small bruises.
He says he can’t help it, and she believes him because he acts like he can’t help it. She wants to do it, too, although she’s also scared it will create something unstoppable in Bradshaw, and she resents the way he pressures her. Still, she spends her days thinking about coming out into the night with Bradshaw and so she wonders if he is not a savior after all but a demon, since she will keep coming to him even as she wants it less and less.
Finally, they stop. He begins to ask her again about leaving. “Not yet, baby,” she says. “Not now.” She calls him baby because she wants to calm him, like a baby, and because she knows that this is how people talk to each other out in the world where her future lies.
“Well, holy shit, Lori...
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