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Book review: <i>The Mutt: How To Skateboard and Not Kill Yourself</i> by Rodney Mullen with Sean Mortimer


the cover of the book

-If this was any more ready to be turned into a film, it would be about a pair of hard-punching renegade cops who break the law to get results.

Cover

A photograph of, from directly beneath, the subject on his skateboard, sliding it, on its edge, through a puddle of water. It's pretty cool, actually. They must have had the photographer lying under some very strong glass covered with liquid. The image has then been treated with oilslick-hued filters and put against a pure black background - the whole thing's a tad psychedelic and a nice break with action sport clichés. The only thing that sucks is the text - ANOTHER scratchy "hand-drawn" thing, pure white over the black, it looks ass and is difficult to read, to boot.

Plot

Mr. Mullen narrates, presumably via the keyboard of Mr. Mortimer, his life story to date. Rodney's in his forties now, which makes him, alongside fellow Mortimer collaborator Tony Hawk, one of the oldest professional skateboarders in the business.

Mullen started skating two years before Hawk, but where Hawk was a fiend for the concrete moonscape of the park, Mullen loved the dorky, perfectionist discipline of Freestyle skating, which is basically extinct today. Using small, rectangular boards, freestylers performed rapid-fire tricks on the spot for judges. Even as a teenage Mullen became the unassailable champion of the discipline, it was dying in the ass. Unlike ramp and street skating, which periodically resurge in popularity, nobody is going to bring back freestyle. Which makes sense, I suppose, given that, for most kids, skating is really about hanging out. For Mullen, an insular, intelligent, painfully shy kid, skating was about personal escapism. He practised with an almost autistic degree of focus for decades to reach his current level. To this day he doesn't go near ramps, and if you know your stuff you could name dozens of skaters more willing to tear off crazy, casualty-inviting grinds and drops that push the edge of what can be risked. Mullen, in his quiet, smiling, humbly obsessive way, is at the absolute limit of what can be physically performed with a skateboard, which means he's inventing his own field, and that, my friends, makes him an artist. If you don't believe me, try this.

The reason you've never seen anyone do half those tricks is simply because nobody else can. Mullen invented the level-ground ollie thirty years ago and hasn't stopped since.

The Good

When reality stops going, "ooh look, I'm all inscrutable with my big gay simultaneous inherent predictability and randomness" and throws out a narrative bone, it craps all over fiction. Hmm, a giant inscrutable bone-tossing abstract whose projectiles are themselves capable of defecation. Good work Tom. That metaphor knew who the bitch was. WHAT I'M TRYING TO SAY IS, tell me if you've heard this before...

There's a kid. He's a bit shy but very nice, smart, kind, loves his family, lives in the suburbs. His family love him, but Dad's overly controlling and wishes his son were more masculine and less introverted. The son finds a pastime and becomes deeply driven, pushing for a mastery which makes no sense to anyone around him (montage #1). At first his Dad is supportive, but as soon as the child starts achieving real success, he tells him he's wasting his life on this ridiculous sport, and bans him from doing it. The son, who wants his father's love and fears his wrath, stops doing what he loves. He sinks into depression and literally wastes away.

Eventually the father grudgingly concedes, with his wife's persuasion, that he should let the son do what he loves. The son hurls himself back into his sport, practises a frankly unrealistic amount (montage #2), working his way up through competitions until he's overtaken his peers and is the best in the world at what he does. But the whole sport is fading! And his father thinks he's a joke!

And so it goes; the little-league skate company run by punks with no head for business who take on the big boys, the resurgence of the sport, the last-minute conversion to a new style, the mentors, the stoners, the craziness, a beautiful woman with a thing for dorks, love, tragedy, the final phone call to the father who never respected him.

OK, yes, I'm not a chump, I realise co-writer Mortimer probably played me like a fiddle here, BUT, dag that I am, I’ve also read Tony Hawk's biography, and I can say that, though it was fun to read, it was also a great deal less like the plot of Flashdance. Hawks' bio basically runs: Precocious little ADD-casualty learns to skate young, hurts himself a lot, awesome hippie parents support him the whole way, kid gets famous, becomes a figurehead for skaters almost by default, possibly partly due to his fucking awesome name. See what I mean? It's not boring, but where's the conflict and the tension? Where's the little guy who's too shy to talk to girls, pushing himself to create amazing things, alone, while the sun sets behind him? No matter how manipulative Mortimer's been (and I'm prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, if he brought these books about), there's no denying that, from the outside, Mullen has lead a narratively satisfying life. I won't give the 'resolution' moment away, because it's too good. My eyes were a little moist, in fact. Sure, I'll admit that, I'm a modern guy. A modern STRAIGHT guy.

The book's subtitle sounds like Skating For Dummies, but an alternate reading soon suggests itself - taking "and not" to mean "so you won't want to". Likewise, the book's prose initially varies from the polite to the pedestrian, but the character of Rodney and the journey he's taken can be relied upon to engage the spirit, and one could argue that more stylish prose might have denied this. Mortimer's task is to convey the tentative intelligence of his subject, the water-table of willpower beneath it, and the drama of his journey. He accomplishes this with skill and restraint.

The Bad

For the hardened cynic, there may be moments where the combination of Mullen's self-effacing voice and Mortimer's production may seem disingenuous, or at least pat. It's inarguable, however, that there's a certain tonal similarity between this and Tony Hawk's biography, despite severe disparities in character and upbringing between the men (Hawk owned his own party-ravaged house in high school and Mullen didn't leave home before he was twenty, for instance), and this reveals Mortimer's level of influence.

It sounds obvious to say that, in a biography, the writer should take a back step to the subject, but this also includes the writer's style and spin (an exception perhaps being in the case of a biography written by a friend of the subject). Mortimer's influence is difficult for a novice like me to accurately assess - if I had to, I'd say he had more to do with the shape of the book than the voice of Mullen - the skater's sensitive but almost unbelievably driven personality really does come through in the prose. There are a couple of moments where the two authors, combined, lack the ability to evoke the fullness of a situation – there’s an important confrontation between Mullen and his father which has the textual feel of someone failing to totally convey why their nightmare was frightening. But these moments are few. (Redrafting now, months from when I read the book, I find I can still summon the humble, geeky intensity of Mullen's personality in my head - I can only surmise this is a combination of Mullen's fascinating life and Mortimer's ability to consistently convey it.)

Oops, back in the ‘good’ column! Look, if any of the above sounds intriguing, please check this out. And even if you don't, for heaven's SAKE click on that youtube link and get some perspective on my gushing. Mullen may be half as famous as Tony Hawk but his life story, like his deck work, is twice as entertaining.

What I learnt

Mullen invented the flat-ground ollie (alongside about a hundred other tricks - it's a little hard for the reader to gauge, though, because, unlike Hawk's book, there's no appendix of inventions). Which I'd forgotten, apparently, because Mullen mentions his pride at Hawk mentioning in HIS book, which I've read. Thanks memory!

That, as a Dad, you've really got to balance teaching kids about the reality of fighting and how to do it a bit, without also instilling the belief that you want to fight THEM. And if you make them spend fifty years clawing for your ever-elusive respect, then you will quite deservedly die alone and unmourned in a piss-scented nursing home.

In short

Title: The Mutt: How To Skateboard and Not Kill Yourself
Author: Rodney Mullen with Sean Mortimer
Publisher: IT Books
ISBN: 978-0060556198
Year published: 2004
Pages: 288
Genre(s): Non-Fiction, Biography, Sport
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