After the critical and commercial success of last year’s All Involved, Ryan Gattis has decided to revisit and reissue his 2005 novel Kung Fu. Based in a brutal and uncompromising high school, the narrative follows Jen B and her kung-fu-fighting ‘family’. There are several ‘families’ at MLK school, each of them with their own fighting style, each with their own leader, but all of them following the rules and regulations set down by a corrupt school administration. These rules are cast asunder when Jen’s brother Cue is murdered and her once world-champion cousin comes out of retirement to avenge his death and prevent the wholesale wipe out of their family.
Alongside this story of school violence, which Gattis claims was a reaction to the Columbine massacre, we have an inexplicable love story between Jen and her cousin Jimmy. This incestuous coupling seems to have little real impact on the narrative, and almost no real reason for its place in proceedings, but yet still seems to dominate many of the pages. Maybe Gattis felt that, to keep our attention through the overly long fight section that closes the novel, we needed more of a connection between these two central characters than the familial one we begin with.
This somewhat confusing relationship is representative of the issues that prevent Kung Fu from reaching its potential. In All Involved, Gattis portrayed the brutal violence of LA’s 1992 race riots with an honesty and empathy that made it a compelling and involving read. In Kung Fu, he struggles to do all of the things he did so well in last year’s release. The relationships feel forced where in the later work they felt natural. The action that felt so realistic in one book, feels comic and fantastical in the other. The balance between scenes of furious conflict and those that took a more measured and emotional look at events was absolutely perfect in one work; in the other the scales way far too heavily on the side of fighting. In fact, battle scenes take up almost all of the second half of the book, making it more than a little difficult to keep track of the action.
Any Cop?: Revisiting this work seems like a strange decision. Kung Fu feels like a practice piece for what came later. Each and every component has been worked on and improved by the time All Involved comes out. The novels have similar themes and take place in similar worlds, but one feels like a real and evocative work that could become a classic. The other is by no means a bad novel, but doesn’t belong in the same bracket as its successor.