Monday, February 06, 2006

Opinion - Kung Fu High School by Ryan Gattis

"Wear your gear. Bring your blades. Back your family. Fight for your life.

MLK High School has collapsed into Kung Fu High School--where Jen B. and her brother, Cue, belong to one of two gangs still standing against the puppet principal and the drug kingpin who pulls his strings. Cousin Jimmy--a world-champion martial arts master of mythic stature--arrives in town after swearing to his mother that he'll never fight again. His rep precedes him and everyone's itching to see him "kicked in"--Kung Fu's brutal initiation ritual. But he won't break his vow and defend himself, so Cue steps in when things go too far. Soon, a surprise counterstrike sends Kung Fu spinning toward one final, raging battle. Teachers flee, students break out full weaponry, and Jimmy must make a decision that will brand him a coward--or a hero.
" - Summary

Kung Fu High School reads like a hyper-violent urban remix of 70’s “Tough Guy” action manga. Novelist Ryan Gattis turns a sublimely over-the-top premise into a rock-solid and, yes, kick ass reading experience. I’ll even go on record as saying that I don't believe the inevitable film adaptation, no matter how well conceived, will be able to truly capture the sheer brutal apocalyptic rapture of Gattis’ fight imagery. The last hundred pages or so contain some of the most bone crushing, exhilerating descriptions of martial arts violence I’ve ever read – it’s “Fist of Legend” meets “Fight Club” by way of “Battle Royale.”

What surprised me, however, is just how poignant and touching the story ultimately turned out to be.

I finished the book two days ago, but still find myself thinking about Jen, Jimmy, Cue, Remo and drug lord Ridley. To Gattis’ credit, he manages to effectively balance the wicked martial arts combat and street fighting elements with a vivid portrayal of how such violence truly scars both the body and the soul. This isn’t a soulless celebration of sadism, but a truly uncompromising look at the consequences of this hypothetical combat heavy lifestyle. The last chapter, in particular, is particularly haunting and tragic.

This isn't trash literature by any means - there's far too much talent and thought on display here. I think many readers may be put off by Gattis' approach, however. He certainly does savor describing in lurid detail the carnage at hand. Still, I think it's lazy to write the book off as a trifle, something meant to indulge the bloodlust of a videogame generation. I ultimately found it impossible to dismiss the humanity of the book because of the savagery of the violence. Critics and readers failing to find fully developed characters in the book or who claim Gattis is simply glorifying violence have, I believe, really sold the author's accomplishments short. Gattis hasn't slighted his characters, but rather trimmed almost all the unneccessary fat from his narrative. This is lean, mean story-telling, but there's plenty of weight to it, as well.

Vicious, unflinching and far exceeding my expectations, Kung Fu High School turned out to be a really terrific little book and I look forward to seeing what Ryan Gattis does in the future.


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