By Ryan Gattis
Published September 2005
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.