Friday, February 11, 2011

book comment - ryan gattis' 'kung fu high school'

Kung Fu High School
By Ryan Gattis

Yeah, a book. I never said this place was going to be just about music, this isn't called too.many.records. or some stupid shit like that. I don't write as much about literature as I should, considering the importance books have in my life, but it's probably a childhood thing. See, I've always read quickly, too quickly in fact, and when I was a kid people tended to not believe me when I said I had already read something they'd given me two days earlier. So I summarized the stories to prove I had indeed read the whole thing through until finally everyone stopped doubting. I guess since then I don't have much patience to discuss the silly amount of books I consume - it's gotten to the point I can't even sleep without downing a few chapters of one of the books I'm currently reading.

This one's special, though, so I'll get past my block to grant it a few words. I've had this book for a couple of years, always on the top of my next-read pile, but constantly being pushed back again at pick-up time. See, I read Ryan Gattis' first book, Roo Kickkick And The Big Bad Blimp, and I was fascinated. Behind that weird children's book title lied one of the most intriguing stories I've ever read, an explosively funny, quirky and surprisingly violent story that lingered in my head for years after I read the book, for all the contrasts. Mainly, the over the top oddballness of it all against the simplicity and absolute truth of the feelings involved. It was utterly captivating, and I bought Kung Fu High School as soon as I read about its existence. But at the same time, I was kinda afraid of it. That it wouldn't live up to the crazy expectations I had after that brilliant first book. Again, the title sounded juvenile to me, although I should have learned that lesson, and the short synopsis didn't quite excite me so much.

So, I picked it up with some trepidation a couple of weeks ago. After ten pages, I was already limiting myself to just a chapter a day, to make it last, because I know Ryan hasn't published any more books since then. Again, it's the contrast. The story is told and lives through the eyes of Jen, a teenager who attends a very particular school, one controlled by a drug dealer named Ridley and where brutal fighting between different groups of students (the "families") is the order of the day. The fight sequences and subsequent injuries are terrifying and not for the squeamish although exhilarating (at times it felt like reading the best bits of Eugene Robinson's 'Fight'), but incredibly enough, the constant violence is not the point.

Once again, it's Jen's whirlwind of feelings, that even she has trouble understanding and processing, that make the book a winner. Her relationship with her brother, a master fighter who also attends the school, with cousin Jimmy, an undefeated, unbeatable fighter who arrives in town after promising his mom he won't fight anymore and for whom Jen harbours a strong crush, with her disabled father she has to take care of, with the death of her mother - all this is vibrantly told through Jen's voice, all while she also describes all the details associated with the fighting, often accompanied by cool drawings of weapons, armor, procedures and objects, notebook-style, as naturally as any other kid would talk about his homework. I don't know how Gattis does it, but Jen genuinely comes across as a teenage girl, with the natural awkwardness that comes with her age but with a very moving inner strength too. That's the word, moving. How a book full of horrific exposed bone fractures and buckets of blood can be summed up as deeply moving is beyond me, but Ryan Gattis has done it again.

According to his facebook, the man is a creative writing teacher at Chapman University in California, so he's probably a busy fellow, but here's hoping a third quirky, violent and unforgettably moving book is in the works. I promise I won't leave it in the pile this time.

No comments:

Post a Comment