Review: Kung Fu High School

Kung Fu High School

By Ryan Gattis

Published September 2005

Harcourt Books

288 pp.

ISBN 0-156-03036-6

Date reviewed: December 1, 2005

Originally reviewed in: The Daily Cardinal

Ryan Gattis’ debut novel “Kung Fu High School,” exploring the story of a high school split into gangs and controlled by a psychotic drug dealer, is as ambitious and fierce as any Jet Li film and even more of a ride. It’s a work of fiction that feels almost real, with long paragraphs of tight details putting every drop of blood on the page.

Kung Fu High’s relative piece is shattered when Jimmy Chang – cousin of two Wave gang members and a world champion fighter – comes to town after taking an oath never to fight again. This proves to be a mistake, as a brewing gang war leaves one of his relatives in the mud and opens up a power struggle on the scale of “Fight Club,” complete with seven rules vital to staying alive.

What makes “Kung Fu” such a fascinating read is that shadow of reality that hangs over the book, as Gattis has sketched out a dark atmosphere that could actually exist in an inner city. A lot of points are clearly exaggeration for (successful) effect, such as the vice principal hauling bundled corpses through the halls during lunch and drug dealers paying extra so their little brother can have a new theater to stage Shakespeare.

However, the concept of a school where freshmen have ribs and jaws kicked in the first day and chess strategies are needed for safe seats in class feels too strange to not have a grain of truth. Gattis adds to this realism by providing diagrams that look like they were scrawled in the back of textbooks, outlining how to stitching layers of beer cans into sweatshirts for body armor and weld knives together for maximum lethality.

And this lethality is everywhere in “Kung Fu.” From the first fight where Jimmy won’t defend against spiked gauntlets to a literal firefight in the chemistry lab, bones are broken and arteries opened almost every chapter. Gattis walks through every step of the combat with a sensei’s eye, picking up on every popped necks and misplaced fist that ends a fight.

Unfortunately, this emphasis on combat and strategies gives “Kung Fu High School” the same problem of countless action films: a lack of character development. Beyond one-word sentences and threats the book is relatively empty of dialogue, giving characters the feel of nameless henchmen and video game bosses. The narrator Jen never really feels right – such as when she cares more about blood on her civics essay than almost dying in a fight – and Jimmy is nothing more than a maelstrom of fists and legs.

“Kung Fu High School” is an interesting and compelling piece of work, a book that reads like the novelization of a martial arts film but comes closer to realism than most movies ever could. It’s an impressive start for Gattis, with plenty of personality in the description to make up for what the characters lack and enough blood to fill a high school auditorium.

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4 Responses to Review: Kung Fu High School

  1. fan_no.2 says:

    I really really enjoyed the book. Hell, it’s one of my top 5, and i disagree with the above review, the characters in my opinion were very well developed. In the case that Jen cares more about her civics homework than her well being, that just shows how used to she is about all the fucked up shit going on around her, and that she’s confident she can take care of her self, or else she wouldn’t have already made it that far.

    Damn, Gattis, i seriously fucking cried at the end. Jimmy so freaking rocked, yet he was thrown into prison? I really hated the book for that, however, that’s the main reason i loved it so much. You really wrote a fucking great book.

  2. Sam says:

    Kung Fu High School is one of my favourite books of all time–although, that’s an understatement.
    Jen B.’s narrating was so great because you get a chance to infer instead of people spelling it out for you already. It also gives an impression on how everybody acts–their individual personalities. If people think these characters act robotic or the same, they’re wrong.

    The ending was excellent! I think so because it was very unexpected and involves reality. Of course things were incredibly unfair and sad towards Jen, Cue, Jimmy, and Melinda–the ending has proved it

    I would also like to say that I’m currently writing a make-belief sequel (‘fanfiction’) for Kung Fu High School. I have added solid disclaimers, of course.

    I absolutely hope that this book successfully turns into a movie, and maybe I could get a chance at auditions? Well I have no note of character auditioning, so… that’s so sad :(
    Lol. Well, for the crew working on the movie, good luck! ^^

  3. lesismore says:

    Well, apparently this three-year-old review has stirred some debate from its devotees – and considering when it was first published it was excerpted on several fighting-related message boards it doesn’t surprise me it’s continued to be popular.

    I wanted to emphasize – since these devotees seem to be angry with me – that I *enjoyed* this book and thought that it was a grimy rapid-paced account of a gang war. Yes, I thought the characters were lacking in depth, but that never kept me from liking it or finishing it – I just saw them as secondary to the action in much the same way most acting is in action films.

    And acting isn’t what I go to “Hitman,” “Death Race” or “Shoot ‘Em Up” for.

    I didn’t think it was perfect, but I don’t think any book is perfect (at least since the best book ever, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” has already been written). I’m writing the best reviews I can with the material I’m given, and I’m pointing out what I feel the strengths and weaknesses are without forming a forceful judgment of it. I’m sorry if I don’t throw complete support behind anyone’s favorite title, but I’m giving one man’s critical interpretation.

    And as a side note to both posters, I appreciate your feedback and disagreeing with me without being the sort of petty trolls that populate the Internet. I’m always happy to listen to readers if they’re civil and professional in their comments.

  4. Maria says:

    Kung Fu High School is one of my favorite book and i love to read it all the time.I wonder all the time did or will they come out with a Kung Fu High School 2. If they do then that book is going to be the best book on my list. I promise i will buy 2 copys of that book just like i got 3 copys of Kung Fu High School.I can go on and on about how much i like this book but im not.Anyways good luck to anyone that just bought the book im telling you it a good book.One day when i go visit my cousin in New York i going to bring the book with me to show my Oldest Cousin. He always wanted to read the book but his mother never bought it for him so i decided to buy 3 copys and im giveing one to him to keep.

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