I view collections of short stories much like compilation tapes. If it’s done right, different readers will have favorite tracks, but none of them outright stink. It should have a nice flow from beginning to end. Editing is key. Life and Limb does just that. The loose thematic foundation is skateboarding. The editors also do a pretty good job of keeping a central focus, but also dilate it just enough to show how skating intersects with art, literature (there’s a story that directly evokes Moby Dick), bus rides, photography, pranks, abstract thoughts, and spirituality. (Some stories have nothing to do with skating – but ice fishing and raccoon eradication attempts – but are written by skaters.) By allowing a diverse cross section of writers some breathing room, Life and Limb also has the feel of a book you could give to a non-skater to show them that skateboarding’s world is much wider than a bunch of concrete-terrorizing miscreants or an ever-touring corporately sponsored modular park with jacked-up commentators.
All that said, my favorite stories were those that effortlessly intertwined skating into a narrative about growing up or growing older.
“Get Radical,” by longtime Thrasher photographer and writer Michael Burnett, covers how he befriended a dorky kid, Dirk, and skated his backyard ramp. One particularly funny section is Dirk’s mom first time on a skateboard. In a very unwise initial move, she decides, having watched kids skate the ramp effortlessly for months, that dropping in on the halfpipe would be easy. “Then, in an incident so powerful it has since taken up more space in my brain than my entire education in mathematics, she took a slam more appropriate in a rodeo bloopers tape than in the neatly groomed backyard of an upper middle class home in the American West…. Her chest, less than thirty-six months cancer free, plowed squarely into the awaiting slope, followed by her chin, which scraped along, bouncing her head a good two or three time in a cartoon-like woodpecker motion….” The entire story is filled with innocence, gaining skate skills, tenderness, poor alcohol decisions, and ends with the young Michael dancing with Dirk’s cute, older sister.
In “Last Summer Some Hippy Pinched My Stick,” by another longtime skater and Thrasher regular, Wez Lundry continues with the engaging storytelling. Recounting the karmic gains and losses of his skateboards over the years, he leads the reader into a situation where they’ve handcuffed the kid who had stolen their boards to a couch as the kid’s mom comes in to collect her son. “It was hilarious,” Wez writes. “Someone spotted her and we all hid in separate bedrooms, laughing…. I came out of hiding, unlocked him, and explained to her what happened, and that we wanted our boards back. She rolled her eyes, obviously used to her son’s exploits.”
What’s also a positive for this collection is that although it isn’t didactic – it isn’t saying “this is right, this is wrong.” It does a good job of looking at skateboarding from the inside out, from long-time observers. Niall Neeson’s “The Lost Boys,” makes the comparison of modern skate videos to pornography. And he makes a good point. Neither medium is very interested in the chase nor the slow build up, but the flash, flash, flash. “The idea,” Neeson writes, “was that with crisp editing and endless footage, the thrill just kept coming. In fact it is an oddly anaesthetic experience, devoid of human context; a great joy reduced to mere mechanics.” He’s right. Watching a highlight reel of Tony Hawk in a vert contest for more than ten minutes has more than a couple similarities with closeups of Ron Jeremy pumping a porn star. Repetition, precision, inherent skill, and robotics, instead of the loose and fluid joys of skateboarding (and sex) as a whole.
The book also does a good job of marking the territorial boundaries that skateboarding has claimed and the battles that it’s currently fighting. Case in point: rollerblades. I’m a mellow dude and if some young kid’s skating them, I figure they just don’t know better and do my best not to tease them. But, if that kids turns out to be a run-snaking little fucker, the “This isn’t a slide!” taunts flow freely from my mouth. Jocko Weyland, in “Cracker Bastards vs. the Fat Dyke Bitch Brood” sheds a little more light on my impulsive disgust. “The main reason is,” Jocko writes, “is that rollerbladers have co-opted the style, clothing, and tricks of skateboarding and adapted them to a demonstrably inferior activity. They also have a penchant for acting laughably tough while trying to pass their eight-wheeled folly off as being comparable to skating. It isn’t…. They are parasites who are unfortunately allowed to share space with skateboarders.”
In wrapping this up, Justin Hocking’s “Whaling,” provides an appropriate bookend. “According to the imaginary bureaucrats in your head, you’re way to old to be skateboarding, but you’re still thinking maybe you can get up and try the frontside air one more time before the pain really sets in… Then Bronco slides down and kneels beside you. ‘Come on,’ he says, grinning, ‘let’s get your ass up out of here.’”
With the hit ratio much higher than the misses, Life and Limb comes highly recommended. –Todd (Soft Skull)