What is skateboarding? When are you doing the thing? Is it the moment you arrive at the spot or the park? Are you skateboarding when you’re on your way to the park? Or when you put your shoes on and grab your board? “When does skateboarding start? Is it when I stretch? Is it when I put on the video before I stretch? Is it when I wake up and think, ‘ah, I get to go skating.’ Like when does it start?” When I met up with Kyle Beachy to skate and talk about his new book, “The Most Fun Thing,” the moment I felt I was skateboarding, was walking with him on the sidewalk, my deck under my arm.
Heading out to the skate spot, a freshly paved side street next to City Lit, Beachy’s favorite Chicago bookstore, we talk about literature and academia, and Beachy stops me mid-sentence to say, “Look at these peonies. Wow.” They’re in full bloom on a late spring afternoon. Helicopters rove overhead, anticipating the protest scheduled that evening in Logan Square.
Beachy sets up a discarded crate someone had abandoned in the alley. We take turns ollying over the crate to warm up, with Beachy stepping up the tricks as we progress. He 180s the box; he kickflips it. Meanwhile on the ground, I land a heelflip and push around the lot, and consider the question he’s posed during our conversation: What is skateboarding?
The last time I felt such kinship while reading a book of essays was Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” or Elisa Gabbert’s “The Word Pretty.” I can’t help but imagine Kyle Beachy’s memoir-in-essays, “The Most Fun Thing” was written directly to me, someone once obsessed by both skateboarding and literature. Beachy tells me that’s not the case, “For all intents and purposes, the person I wrote this for was me. I wrote it because it seemed to me there was a conversation about skateboarding that I wanted to have that didn’t seem to be going on anywhere. And so I wrote these things to have the conversation.”
After the success of his first novel, “The Slide,” Kyle Beachy set out to write his skateboard novel. He wanted to create something that pushed the bounds of narrative form, something that would capture what it means to skateboard; to be part of this activity of the body, mind and culture of skateboarding.
Beachy notes skateboarding is limited in its language. Skateboarders agree on names of tricks, of particulars, like frontside versus backside, like a smith versus a feeble grind. We can put these terms on the movements of the skater’s body and boards. We have this language, but how do we talk about it as an art form? Beachy poses a comparison, “If I’m well-versed in the language of poetry, I can tell you, ‘formally it feels this’ or ‘the persona of this poem strikes me as this.’ We have these tools, but in skating those tools haven’t been established. It’s not because we don’t have the poetics, it’s because skateboarding just hasn’t turned that corner on language to be able to say, ‘Well, why?’ And so we end with like, ‘Oh, that’s dope.’”
“The Most Fun Thing” stemmed from that trouble with language to recreate the feeling of skateboarding. “I was at a point where trying to write the skateboard novel, I continued to run into the same sort of problems, which was, it just felt very didactic. I was doing a certain kind of work to try to get at this thing that I believed about skateboarding. So the original thought was, if I write some essays, I could maybe drain that particular part of my brain and get that idea-driven and didactic part out. To be able to have a venue to say the thing: Here’s what’s interesting about skateboarding.”
“The essays were a chance to work non-narratively and also confront the challenges I was having at the time and continue to have with narrative as an art form,” Beachy explains. “As probably anyone who’s alive in the twenty-first century should be, I’m very suspicious of narrative. And to be able to write about skateboarding for me was always a chance to try to find a narrative form that was true to skateboarding.”
The subjects of Beachy’s writing reach beyond the semantics of skateboarding, to the exploitation of the industry and the systemic homophobia around it. While he is not afraid to name these problems, Beachy notes 2010 to 2020 has been the most important time for skateboarding, aside from its invention thanks in part to collectives like froSkate and Skate Like a Girl. “This is the decade when the most meaningful changes happened. It seems to me like skateboarding has become more diverse in terms of identities and inclusions and subjectivities.” He notes the acceptance even stems to diversity of abilities. This concept is something skateboarding culture has revolved around, but, hopefully as the language evolves, the concepts will become more solidified. For example, Beachy knows his friend Zach is a technically better skater than he is, but says, “There’s no fear that Zach being really good is going to make my skating less fun.”
There are meta moments within the text where Beachy recalls criticism of an essay placed earlier in the book, and at certain points we are given glimpses of the skateboarding novel that this book is not, but has spawned from. It is grappling with existentialism.
Beachy has an ongoing joke with a friend who is reading “The Most Fun Thing.” His friend asks a question about the book, and Beachy replies, “This is it. You’re part of the book, man. You’re in it.” When it’s all intrinsic to his passion, how can we expect him to separate the love of skateboarding from himself?
The question was how to approach the concept of skateboarding. “I guess the only way that I was ever going to be comfortable writing about myself was writing about myself as the person who had been writing about skateboarding.” In turn, that means writing about his life in relation to skateboarding, and the people in his life. Beachy’s marriage is at the forefront of the book through their problems, their arguments, and their love. The relationship serves as the basic element, tying into the question of human motivation that Beachy’s writing alludes to. Skateboarding is the lens that allows him to ask “Why?”
“And I think the question of ‘Why is that?’ is worth asking,” he says. “Why is there this thing that I do all the time, that I love doing, that hurts me, and it’s getting harder every day of my life, because my body’s breaking down and I’m not as good at it as I was when I was twenty-two. Why do I keep doing it?”
“What is this thing?” and “Why do I keep doing it?” will always be the biggest questions of this conversation that Beachy has ignited. There’s no definitive answer, but since reading “The Most Fun Thing,” I want to grab my board, ride to the closest skate spot, and try to figure it out.
“The Most Fun Thing: Dispatches from a Skateboard Life”
By Kyle Beachy
Grand Central Publishing, 256 pages
Joshua Bohnsack is the assistant managing editor for TriQuarterly and founding editor for Long Day Press. He is the author of the story collection “Shift Drink” and his work has appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart, SAND, and others. He lives in Chicago where he works as a bookseller.