Kung Fu High School by Ryan Gattis

Eyeball-stabbing, finger snapping fun at The Fu
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The Independent Culture

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Sometimes when you're watching television, that woman with the creamy, husky voice comes on and breathes at you that "the following programme contains strong language, violence," and so on. I quite like this warning: it usually (but by no means always) means that what follows will be edgy, maybe a bit dangerous, and, quite frankly, exciting.

With this in mind, I would like to shout at you, in my best booming Margot Leadbetter voice, that this book contains extreme violence. We're talking knives in the eyeballs, blisters on mouths from red-hot shotgun barrels and more snapped fingers than you can shake... well, there's no shaking going on with these duffed-up digits.

This novel, however, doesn't seem to have been written for angsty teenage Matrix wannabes. Fighting is a way of life for the characters at Kung Fu High School - aka America's Good Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King (Junior) High School - and that's the whole point of the story. To omit excessive, brutal bloodshed would be like writing a novel about chefs and only once mentioning a spoon.

Jen, the narrator of Kung Fu, kicks off the story (pun intended) with the arrival of her cousin Jimmy, who's joining the school. Jimmy is a kung fu grand champion. He's never even been touched in a fight, and is clearly a prize asset in a school where you routinely wear knife protection: "I... went straight for the long-sleeved turtleneck with kev protection all the way down the arms, front and back organ protection and most importantly, plastic-moulded throat protection." He's a prime target for every daredevil wannabe at The Fu, especially as getting "kicked in" is "a necessary evil for continued existence. It happens at one point or another to everyone at Kung Fu."

Comparisons with Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club are inevitable. Of course, they are both based around fighting. Then there's a similar set-up of the rules of The Fu (listed at the start so that we all understand each other) and the desperate sense of powerlessness against the rising tide of violence. You could also compare the way in which the narrator of Fight Club constantly related events to a gaping hole in his cheek to the way in which Jen ponders the significance of the enormous tattoo that covers her back.

I think, however, that comparisons like these are probably best left to English students. Kung Fu High School has its own story to tell. Ryan Gattis, from Columbine, Colorado, was good friends with two people who were accused by an American news channel of influencing the Columbine massacre. A video that they had made was said by the channel to have directly influenced the shooters. The story was quickly dumped but no apology was issued. This injustice is the idea behind the novel, and the influence is clearly a powerful one.

Whether or not you read Kung Fu High School will probably depend upon whether or not you have the stomach for blood and gore. If you can't even cope with Casualty, then you'll never pick this book up. It's so tense that at times you have absolutely no idea what has just happened in the real world because you're in The Fu, entirely. You feel every blow, every break. And what a climax: it lasts from page 177 to page 248. Epic. I want to tell you all about it so that I can discuss with you how wonderful, tragic and ultimately cathartic it was... but I won't. You'll just have to keep a strong stomach and see for yourself.

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