How not to read a memoir

Paul Constant

June 05, 2018

In his memoir Kickflip Boys, Seattle author Neal Thompson documents the trials and pleasures of parenting two very active young boys. The narrative through which he tells the story is his sons’ love affair (“a nightingale’s song? a siren’s song?”) with skateboarding.

If, like me, you’ve never ollied an axel or whatever the hell it is skateboarders do in parking lots at 2 in the morning, you don’t have to worry about being inundated with a flood of skating terminology. Thompson starts Kickflip Boys without any real knowledge of the sport, and so the reader mirrors his learning curve as his sons adopt skateboarding as a sport, a lifestyle, and an art.

And really, Thompson isn’t giving a blow-by-blow of the boys’ exploits. Instead, he uses skateboarding to show how they make sense of the world, and how he relates to them. In this early passage, Thompson uses his sons’ different approaches to the sport to deftly draw out their characters:

When their interest in skating began, my boys had come at it from slightly different angles. Leo was initially more interested in the sport, while Sean was fascinated by the culture. Leo was drawn to the social scene, the collegiality of the skate park, while Sean preferred the fringes, the harder edge of the trespassing street skating scene. Leo was the happy-go-lucky risk taker, while Sean was the diva, throwing passionate tantrums when he failed to land a trick, sometimes snapping his own board in anger.

In case it’s not clear by now, these are willful boys, just as Thompson admits he was as a child. They have vegetarian phases, they slip into and out of Buddhism. They simply refuse to participate in class when they don’t feel like it, and they regard every perceived injustice as another scar on their heart. That said, at least earlier in the book, they do wear helmets at their parents’ behest, even when it means other skateboarders might mock them.

The central question of Kickflip Boys seems to be how much parenting is too much, and how little parenting is too little. Thompson and his wife want to know about every aspect of the boys’ lives, but they don’t want to establish too many rules:

We loved them dearly, fiercely. But we decided early on that we’d stay out of their way, much as our parents had. We’d let them explore and be free, shooing them into the world but preventing them from veering too far. We’d be willing to let them fail. And we’d soon find ourselves tolerating everyday misdeed that’d give a hard-core Tiger Mom a stroke.

About that passage: Thompson isn’t kidding. Over the course of Kickflip Boys, he gets calls from irate SPD officers about his son’s mouthiness, he sees his two teenage sons packing and smoking bowls. He hears all about his son’s forest kegger. He cleans one of his boys up after he eats a pot brownie on an empty stomach and throws up everywhere for the rest of the night.

The boys put up YouTube videos of themselves skateboarding off of statues on the waterfront and making fun of a woman who yelled at them for trespassing. Thompson watches all the videos, and his response surprised me as a reader:

Did I like the abuse of statuary, and the mocking of its protector? No, I did not. Did I appreciate their exuberantly obnoxious boyishness? Well, as someone who’d been there (and maybe overstayed my time), I knew that pushing the limits and risking my neck and sometimes being a shitbag was what boyhood was all about. The problem was this: as a dad in the age of iPhones and YouTube, I had access to moments that my parents never witnessed. I saw them in the wild, in action. And I was unwilling to look the other way.

Like Thompson, I couldn’t look away either. The book held my attention and kept me in a perpetual state of eagerness to find out what happened next. But I have to be honest: most of the time while I was reading Kickflip Boys, all I could think, over and over, was “these are horrible parents!”

I kept having that reaction, that exact thought, again and again as I read Kickflip Boys. Thompson would discuss an act of vandalism, or his sons wandering the street at night, drunk and alone, and some deeply moral part of me would rear up and clutch its pearls: “What about the children!”

But after a while, I got so high on my own superiority that I had to stop reading the book and investigate why I was reading it in the first place: Was I just engaging with Kickflip Boys so I could experience the same obnoxious holier-than-thou thrill that people get when they read trashy rock star biographies, or watch reality television? It seemed likely, and I didn’t enjoy the feeling.

So let’s step back and appreciate where my feelings of superiority were coming from: I was an introverted, excessively bookish child who dutifully didn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs until after I was out from under my parents’ roof. I didn’t test boundaries; hell, I could barely keep my head out of a book to find a boundary at any given moment. And as an adult, I am consciously, happily child-free. In other words, I own exactly zero percent of the moral high ground from which to stand and shake my finger at Thompson.

So what was I doing with my tut-tutting of Kickflip Boys? I was treating the book like a peepshow into what I believed to be a carousel of bad behavior, and getting a prurient thrill out of the way it made me feel better than the author. In short, I was being a Bad Reader, which seems to be an affliction that is uncomfortably common among fans of memoir. I wasn’t reading the book to learn or to empathize, I was there to judge, and to feel good doing it.

Thompson is not an idiot; I’m sure he expected some readers to raise their hackles at Leo and Sean’s misadventures. But that gives him more reason to write Kickflip Boys, not less. Parenting is an art, not a science, and the honesty he brings to the narrative is commendable. It’s brave for a family to open themselves up to the public like this, and that vulnerability should be recognized. Because of Thompson's humility and accessibility, any parent could find something to learn in these pages.

Of course, not every memoir deserves to win on bravery points. There are plenty of bad memoirs out there, and lots of bad memoirs written by bad people who offer not a single ounce of introspection. But with Kickflip Boys, Thompson tells a compelling story with vivid language, bracing honesty, and sincere soul-searching. He doesn’t puff himself up, and he always allows room for the reader to interpret his actions differently.

Thompson put in a good-faith effort to tell the story he had to tell. As a reader, for much of the book, I didn’t meet him halfway. That's my loss.

Books in this review:
  • Kickflip Boys
    by Neal Thompson
    Ecco
    May 14, 2018
    304 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

Other recent reviews

November 13, 2018

Accidentally honest

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Shame of Losing
    by Sarah Cannon

    October 01, 2018
    264 pages
    Provided by author
    Buy on IndieBound
November 06, 2018

Seattle on the y axis

Paul Constant

writes about
  • Seattleness
    by
    Sasquatch Books
    October 22, 2018
    192 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
October 30, 2018

The pratfall of Rome

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Lachrymose Report
    by Sierra Nelson
    Poetry Northwest Editions
    October 30, 2018
    90 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound