The Impossible: Rodney Mullen, Ryan Sheckler and the Fantastic History of Skateboarding by Cole Louison.
The Impossible chronicles the birth and sinusoidal growth of the business and culture of skateboarding. To do this Louison focuses on those figures that have been both the most influential on skating’s technical development and it’s most successful from a mainstream (i.e. financial) point of view. Reasonably he chooses Rodney Mullen and Ryan Sheckler as his chief protagonists in this odd almost mythological sounding tale.
The story builds in concise brilliantly paced sections that lead us ever on toward the 2010 Dew Tour finals. Whether this is a place you want to go doesn’t matter too much since Louison’s skill as a writer quickly enthralls and, since he seems a decent fellow, we are soon excited to accompany him on his journey.
He begins by bringing us fascinating details of the dark machinations and dastardly dealings at the very germination of the skate industry. He quickly and effectively places Rodney in a rich historical context and paints for us a conflicted hero who is mystically attuned to the skateboard trick potential ever present in the invisible fabric of the universe (this is my own interpretation). For us Rodney channels that particular music of the spheres. He is our trusted shaman.
Refreshing breaths of cynicism punctuate the journeys of our heroes. Observing the diamond ear-ringed firebird rise – from the ashes of the junkyard bonfire lit by skating’s libertine heroes in the early nineties – of the televised, quantified, big money skate contests of the early 21st century, Louison notes the appearance of the “skate moms and dads”. “Not there to support their kids but rather to support the investment they’d made in what their kids were doing.” Not guarding but watching, not cheering but yelling.
One of the books main themes is the intersection of skate culture with mainstream (popular) culture and throughout Louison investigates this interplay between art and commerce. The uneasy symbiosis, the love hate thing.
The writing is the excited, lucid prose of a man enthusiastic about skateboarding but with an occupation and responsibilities that often divert his attention. This I should add is no bad thing and it’s perhaps what accounts for the small number of factual errors that crop up throughout the book. We might call these errors hairs. We do this in order to set up this bit based on the expression there’s no need to split hairs. The specific tricks Reynolds did at bust or bail are not make or break details in the grand scheme of skateboarding’s story and if I was to talk of Jeff Phelps of Thrasher it would be a hair I’d apologise for splitting because Jeff Phelps sounds like Jake Phelps with his shirt tucked in working a job in a bank somewhere. The hair I can’t apologise for splitting is the use of simile in a description of Sheckler kffboarding at the start of his winning 2010 X-Games finals run early in the book. Like the rest of the book it is a great piece of writing. Louisons fast, smooth prose leads us charging through the trick in matrix like slow motion, all grace and precision, when all of a sudden we are hit with the phrase “…like a soaring ape.” Out of respect for Desmond Morris I am stopped in my tracks. This is one of 2 occasions I am forced to talk out loud.
“A skateboarder, Sheckler or otherwise, is not LIKE an ape, a skateboarder, Sheckler or otherwise, IS an ape (unless of course they are a dog or some other species of generally earth-bound creature)
One thing I found very odd was the abundant use of the phrase “switch nollie”. At first it sort of made me frown and pout but the more I read it as Louison continued to write it the more that frown turned into a smile, the more entertaining it became. A Monty Pythonesque lampooning of overly technical jargon. Something Ronnie Barker would have done so skillfully in the 70s and 80s.
“Switch nollie laser” Louison writes. It’s a trick I would always refer to as a fakie laser unless I was taking the piss. I decided to read on as if this was a joke Louison was consciously playing.
Throughout the author comes across as somewhat of a Sheckler-phile (with a mild Lizard King fixation), which is fine, Sheckler is the Luke Skywalker of his skateboarding Star Wars after all, but it doesn’t always make for unquestionable statements. He cites a kickflip grab over a bmx jump in 2003 as something “no one had seen an adult pro do” which immediately brings Colt Cannon, Chris Senn and Ryan Johnson to this reviewers mind. And “there is no one who works harder on a skateboard than Sheckler” also doesn’t quite ring true.
The sanctifying, however, is by this point already comedy since earlier he describes Sheckles thus, “He has big shining eyes inside long-lashed, almond-shaped sockets and full lips and tan skin and pink nails.” He describes a cherubic doll of a boy beating everyone’s ass in a pink bracelet. Pure truth-stranger-than-fiction gold. Louison’s punch lines are numerous but one relevant to his description of Sheckler might be when he notes the resemblance of Ryan’s Rolling Stone profile portrait to “the opening image of a teen-themed pornography sequence.” And describing Ryan’s approach to skateboarding as “steroidic” verges on insulting depending how it’s read. It’s this type of zigzagging brilliance that keeps us going all the way to Rodney’s quiet, reflective house on the last page. But! It’s his description of Shaun White, sitting in an interview room at the 2010 Dew tour finals, in the glorious, heinous desert city of Las Vegas, that had me shouting for my wife, so I could read it aloud and we could both fall around on the floor in hysterical laughter. For that treat you will have to part with the purchase price.