What do you think of when you hear the word skateboarding?
A kid with bleached hair hiding half his face, in long shorts and a long-sleeve crewneck shirt with a loud graphic, pushing a board hard, then leaping to straddle a park stair railing? The grinding sound of rubber wheels against asphalt somewhere in your periphery? Accessories like Vans shoes or those upturned caps? How about a physical activity that expresses the fundamental essence of your soul?
Novelist and Roosevelt University creative-writing professor Kyle Beachy has written a ruminative, alternately hilarious and heartbreaking collection of interconnected essays about an activity that some of us associate with childhood and never give a second thought to, aside from the occasional moment when its practitioners inconvenience us as we navigate our city’s public spaces.
The pieces in The Most Fun Thing (Grand Central Publishing) span the last decade and cover the weird taxonomy of skateboarding, the encroachment of corporate marketing into a thing that thinks itself anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist, profiles of some of its brightest lights, and its enduring controversies and scandals. Beachy is a true believer, but doesn’t shy away from the tensions and contradictions of a pastime that is by turns cultish and silly, but also all-consuming for those within its sphere.
He details the costs skateboarding has exacted on his marriage and his body, but also manages to tie in literature and philosophy. He cites David Foster Wallace on tennis and the hard-to-quantify-or-define concept of fun. For that is one of Beachy’s goals, to articulate and give gravity to a thing that few take seriously. His twin passions of writing and skateboarding sometimes meld, other times chafe on one another throughout.
The historian Iain Borden calls skateboarding participatory architecture. I take that to mean that the skater helps change his physical environment with kickflips, ollies, grinds, and impossibles. He repurposes benches, ledges, and stairs to his own requirements, rather than those they were designed for. He makes an imaginative, customized world out of quotidian elements non-skaters accept as background scenery. This is a convincing analogue to what artists do—transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.
It’s not all enchantment and wonder though. Beachy is clear-eyed in detailing skateboarding’s nasty history of exclusionary practices, racism, and kowtowing to corporate interests. In these aspects, it reflects well the country in which it was invented some 60 years ago, just as so many other fields are now attempting (with varying results and enthusiasm) to be open and representative of the citizenry that will keep it thriving. There are many more kinds of kids that want to take up skateboarding than the prototypical blond suburban white boy reflexively associated with it.
Towards the end of the book, Beachy tells the reader about his own personal white whale, his Mount Everest—the heretofore unattained life-goal of doing an elaborate skate trick on the hideous Picasso statue in the plaza of the Daley Center in downtown Chicago. His account of repeatedly being thwarted in his quest by pedestrians, security guards, or athletic failure is tied to local civic history and heartfelt questioning of his own motives and ambitions. It is the best example of his nimble balancing of seemingly unrelated themes into a coherent, compelling narrative. His years as a novelist and teacher of aspiring novelists serves him well.
As a man in his 40s, Beachy must reckon with the coming conclusion of a thing he has dedicated decades and multiple broken limbs to. He knows he has to let go but doesn’t know how. Meanwhile, he wonders, “How does one live like an adult while engaging in an activity and lifestyle that are fundamentally childish?”
Reading this book did not change my views on skateboarding, much less make me want to personally teeter onto one. There’s a difference between proselytizing and communicating a passion. I came away with an understanding of a thing I knew little about. Beachy has written a book about skateboarding unlike any before it. The trick of defining a thing one loves to people to whom it means little, is finding a layman’s language—a way in for those on the outside. What’s plain as day to an acolyte is obscured to the unbeliever without the right words, “How sacred this obviousness.” v