Daredevils – Shawn Vestal

2 out of 5

I understand that the back copy of a book isn’t necessarily determined by the author. Maybe they had a chance to sign off, maybe not. Still, I find it hard not to judge when that copy is very much not in sync with the contents; while I suppose a completely cynical take would be that the writer of that copy maybe hadn’t done their homework – they skimmed, or accepted a synopsis as told to them and wrote what came to mind – I tend to think the more likely cause is that they were searching for a hook that wasn’t actually in the text; they were trying to piece together a trailer.

It’s not that Daredevils is lacking something worth highlighting in such a fashion, but I can understand someone struggling to come up with a grabbing summary, as much of the book is about avoidance. Mormon teens Loretta and Jason – from different sides of a family, one more extreme than the other – are each avoiding the forced-upon-them realities of their raising; and when they bumble together to escape those, they each have their ways of avoiding the truths of what’s going on between them – or not – as well. The book is very much not the road novel or about the treasure hunt / chase its back blurb portends, framing the above-mentioned avoidance as something a bit more direct and exciting; while this disconnect is wended into the narrative – and Shawn Vestal’s writing is at its best when digging into this – it’s also a paced meditation on teenagers growing up, and the fitfulness of that squeezed through a Mormon lens. The opening chapters may lead us to think there’s going to be more of a criticism / study specific to that way of life, but it exists more as a way to study certain personality types that have surface similarities but express themselves, ultimately, much differently, and also gives a high level metaphor for the way we force ourselves into certain ways of life due to expectations.

Except Vestal’s approach to this is often so casual that it’s hard to make much of it. He touches on gender roles a bit, and frames the above concept through race as well, via Jason’s Native American friend, Boyd – maybe or maybe not Native American, rather: his mother is evasive as to who his father was – but stalls on taking us anywhere. Again, this is moderately representative of the “stall” of the two leads’ lives, but it’s presented in disservice to a more compelling narrative approach, Vestal substituting changeups in presentation, and periodic flashes to first person ramblings from Evel Knieval – Jason’s hero, and another representative of hopes versus reality – for more involving plot or character evolution. This, to me, goes hand-in-hand with that back cover copy: there’s a point here, but stretched to define it more deeply than a feeling, the author chooses to distract us instead.

While it’s interesting to have the sides of the Mormon family juxtaposed, and there are flashes of brilliance, pitting the at-odds desires of Loretta and Jason alongside one another, in painfully realistic moments where the former is trying to express herself, and the latter is just hearing what he wants to, the majority of Daredevils feels like it’s executed conceptually – the high level sketch of the book makes sense – but the nitty gritty of it is too loose to hold together, making most of its midsection pleasing enough, but not exactly memorable or moving.