In 1974, Scott Von Doviak was seven years old when his “real-life superhero,” Evel Knievel, bungled a much-hyped stunt to jump a rocket-powered motorcycle across Idaho’s Snake River Canyon. After the Skycycle X-2’s launch, Knievel’s drogue parachute malfunctioned and prematurely released, causing too much drag. He anticlimactically landed at the canyon’s bottom, sustaining just minor injuries.
While doing research for his debut work of nonfiction 30 years later (2004’s Hick Flicks: The Rise and Fall of Redneck Cinema), Von Doviak came across a piece of gonzo reporting from Showgirls screenwriter Joe Eszterhas for Rolling Stone called “King of the Goons,” about Knievel’s Snake River debacle. Eszterhas’s outrageous rendition of the “horrific shitshow” of an event read like a redneck-ified Mad Max spin-off, something that never quite left the researcher’s mind.
Now, just shy of two decades later, Von Doviak gives us his sophomore novel, Lowdown Road, “the ’70s drive-in movie playing in [his] mind,” which, in its climax, reimagines Snake River as Altamont 2.0.
Von Doviak was a longtime television journalist for The Onion’s A.V. Club when he released his first novel, Charlesgate Confidential (via the Hard Case Crime imprint), for which pulp-fiction guardian angel (and fellow Mainer) Stephen King provided a glowing blurb. Of this follow-up, Lowdown Road, King simply says it’s a “fucking great story.” Von Doviak’s Southern-fried yarn is indeed terrifically cinematic, written as something akin to the lower half of a double feature with Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry—released the same year that Lowdown Road takes place.
Chuck Melville’s been out of Texas state prison for just six months—after serving five years for aggravated assault—before getting back into trouble with the law. Cruising “on a sticky late summer night in 1974” in a ’70 Dodge Challenger (no doubt a reference to the muscle-car classic at the center of 1971’s Vanishing Point) nicked from Dean, his weed-dealing cousin, Chuck ends up in hot water after accidentally picking up a sheriff’s deputy’s wife at an icehouse on Route 46. After getting pulled over by the lawman-husband, a shoot-out ensues, of which Chuck is the sole survivor.
Cash-strapped and trying to stay ahead of the heat, he convinces Dean to join him in a robbery of $1 million worth of pot from his Black marijuana-kingpin boss, Antoine, and truck it to Idaho to sell in one big blowout at Evel Knievel’s upcoming Snake River Canyon spectacle. Now Chuck and Dean have not just the police on their tail across state lines, but Antoine and, separately, the psychopathic Texas sheriff Giddings. It turns out the sheriff’s deputy’s wife whom Chuck offed had been in a secret love affair with Giddings, who is now out for his own bloody revenge. (I couldn’t help but picture him as played by M. Emmet Walsh.)
Crushable reading, Lowdown Road is part breezy road-trip hangout and part exciting mad, mad, mad, mad chase, as Von Doviak positively packs the pages with as many 1974 referential touchstones as he can fit. (A Claudia Jennings double feature of ’Gator Bait and Truck Stop Women, an eight-track of Neil Young’s On the Beach, an overdue library copy of Peter Benchley’s Jaws, etc.) The book is wonderfully lived-in and evocative, with C.B. radios used and bottles of Lone Star guzzled to give the propulsive storytelling a thoroughly nostalgic patina.
There’s one ill-advised bit in the final act involving a threatening biker named Uptown Mike speechifying in an unconvincingly erudite manner about the history of the term “drawn and quartered” before having his gang attempt to do just that to Chuck. It’s a scene in the otherwise great dénouement which derives from Quentin Tarantino’s trademark eccentrically articulate yet violent villains, but it misses the mark.
Overall, Lowdown Road is quite an assured read. Hopefully Von Doviak has more drive-in movies playing in his mind for future work.
Spike Carter is a writer and filmmaker. His next project is a documentary about Eric Roberts