Ghosts of the Tsunami

Kung Fu High School

9780374182267 fc
Paperback, MCD × FSGO, 2017
read an excerpt

“[An] ultraviolent, dystopian debut novel from Ryan Gattis, the spawn of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Cormier.” —Publishers Weekly

High school is brutal, but Jen B. has learned to pick her battles. Except the first one—that one is mandatory. At the Good Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King High School, aka “Kung Fu,” everyone gets beaten to a pulp in their first week. Getting “kicked in” helps Ridley, the drug kingpin who runs the school and everyone in it, maintain order. He's the reason that 99.5 percent of the students know some form of martial art, and why they suit up in body armor and blades before class.

Jen’s life is savage but simple until the day her cousin Jimmy, a world-famous kung fu champion, shows up. Everyone at Kung Fu wants a piece of him, especially Ridley, but Jimmy’s made a promise never to fight again—a promise that sends the whole school hurtling toward a colossal clash, ending in an epic bloody showdown.

Ryan Gattis’s dystopian satire, Kung Fu High School, is a cult classic in the making—a darkly comic, gleefully graphic, barbaric opera about loyalty, survival, and the horrors of high school, which earned comparison with the works of such icons as Chuck Palahniuk, Richard Price, and Anthony Burgess.

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An excerpt from Kung Fu High School



The Good Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King High School, that’s the block-letter official name chiseled into the three-foot-thick concrete sign that sits in the dying yellow weeds in front of the cluster of buildings that was my school. First, it got called M.L. King or MLK, simple enough. Then there was King Junior to be more precise and that was because he started having a national holiday all to his posthumous self, but the word was never officially added to the title because everyone thought it would lead to confusion and people would think we were a junior high. That didn’t stop us from calling it King Junior anyway. King Joony followed not long before it was mercifully shortened to King Joo. It never was KJ and I don’t know why that is. But I do know that by the time Ridley was running drugs out of the school cafeteria, people in the city just knew us as Kung Fu.

Wasn’t really surprising that Kung Fu High School was a name someone from the outside came up with first. It was supposed to be an insult because there were so many Asian American kids attending but that was a bullshit reason. We didn’t have any more Asians than anywhere else. Us students didn’t care though. We liked it. It was Bruce Lee tough, a gory stamp of approval that featured a clenched fist crushing the blood right out of a still-beating heart. That was how we saw it in our minds. That was what the nickname meant to us, that Kung Fu.

The way most everybody talks about it though, you’d think it was the evilest place on earth. They don’t even talk about us like we’re humans because of what happened. Senseless animals, I’ve heard. Wild beasts, I’ve heard. Monsters? Demons? Heard those too and I’ve heard even worse. There are more rumors and stories about us than could ever be written down. Every single one made up because the brutal truth could never be released to the public. Not like it mattered. Nobody wanted to believe it was real anyway. That a school like ours could actually exist and that it could really go off the way it did. That so many people could be murdered. I guarantee the whole thing was easier for them to deal with if what actually happened stayed in their horror-packed imaginations and didn’t occur in a regular old high school.

It was like this: main building was a four-story building, a giant box with minimal windows, connected to the two-story gym by a cake-wedge corner of bi-level cafeteria built long after the original plans. The central quad was marked out in huge rectangles of flat concrete. In front of the gym, a two-foot-high, six-foot-wide box, poured of the same concrete so that it looked like it was rising up out of the ground, was spaced between every three rectangles. Those solid things were supposed to be for sitting on, but that was a damn rare occurrence. On the east edge of campus was the other main building. Long and only one level, it housed the auto shop, home economics, and what passed for art studios on one end, while the special education center took up the other. Across from the gym was the theater and band building. Built on the original grade of the hill, the tiered theater angled down the small mound and the bottom, where the stage was, bordered the parking lot. It blocked off the quad from streetview. That was all KFHS was: five faded redbrick buildings plus a couple of disused portable classrooms, surrounding a dirty gray quad. Not so scary, not so special, and definitely not the seventh circle of hell. Long before our “gangbanger” Armageddon went down though, we had a reputation.

Don’t even go there, they’d say when the talk first went around town. Haven’t you heard that that one guy died there? It’s true too. Robert W. Lewis, nicknamed Robbie, aged sixteen, did die here, right in front of his locker, #126, but it wasn’t because he was stabbed or shot or kicked in the chest so hard that it turned his rib cage to dust and liquefied all his internal organs so powerfully that he vomited all his innards onto the laminate floor that was missing more than a few grayish white tiles. That shit isn’t even possible. What actually happened was Robbie had a bad heart and Robbie had a heart attack after Robbie took some cocaine during Robbie’s study hall period then Robbie got dead while reaching for Robbie’s chemistry book. He wasn’t the first person to die here, just the first white one with rich parents to make a fuss. So that was the story that got the status ball rolling but it was much worse than one white kid OD’ing and that incident certainly didn’t stop anything.

The circle was in effect Monday through Friday and if you got challenged, you had to fight. No choice. Two hundred people circle you up and sling you into the middle against Bruiser Calderón and you ain’t going anywhere but at his throat or balls. Don’t even waste time with his knees or those tiny eyes hidden under that caveman brow. Keep that chin down and cover those ears. Head butt if you can sneak one but focus on his soft points and don’t get distracted.

For reals though, why the nickname Kung Fu? Personally, I think it was because 99.5 percent of our student body knew one form or another of martial arts. Serious. If it weren’t for a few people that could only hold their own because of how big they were, the number would’ve been 100 percent. Dojos all over the city were booked out with kids from our high school who wanted to learn self-defense tactics fast. So then Express Dojos sprang up. Like kung fu kapitalism. They specialized in one-week intensive courses in anything you wanted: those popular Japanese forms, Karate, Sumo, Judo, Aikido, Jujitsu, Ninpo/Ninjitsu, Chinese styles of kung fu but specific ones like Hung, Kui, Lee, but never Mo, don’t know why, then there was Wing Chun, all kinds of Korean Leg Fighting, Hapkido, Tae Kwon Do, Hwa Rang Do, Kuk Sool Won, Hup Kwon Do, the ill kind of Muay Thai where all the kids got yellowed shinbones from kicking stumps until the scar tissue prevented any kind of feeling apart from invincibility, and there was Kuntao, Indonesian Silat, Filipino Escrima, some dance-y Capoeira, Front-Foot Boxing, Vanilla Kickboxing, Krav Maga, even some styles most people thought long dead, I mean Tibetan, Mongol, some Nigerian craziness, all started popping back up too, but various mixtures always reigned.

Usually the big circle winners knew two or three real well and could switch up on you in the time it took to button your collar. Happy hybrids, everything was everything, even the type of shit that people only ever saw in movies was in our big house: animal styles like snake, eagle claw, and monkey, fists of the elements, seriously everything. Authentic? Not authentic? It didn’t matter. So long as it worked, we stole it. We stole it all. I mean, that’s the real American Way, right? Gee, Hawaii looks nice, we’re fuckin’ taking it, right? Roll over it, dress it up, or put a flag in it, just claim it as your own. All them fusions got crazy too. But no one ever saw that. It was all just a tall tale unless you experienced it for yourself.

But Robbie dying, that was fact and after that the other rich kids started getting transfers to other schools, prestigious public or private ones in different districts so they didn’t have to show up for classes in the rundown part of the city anymore. The state threatened to pull our funding, which didn’t help because the total population was almost three thousand mostly bad kids that had nowhere to go but to infect good schools, or so everyone thought. Besides, Ridley would’ve just found another high school to operate out of. Didn’t matter where really.

It was the perfect cover and it was even better when all the rich kids with clean faces took off and the only dirty-faced white kids who were left might as well have been black, brown, red, or yellow too. So that was it. Asian, Latino, European, African, Indian, and every other American thing in between became one big mix. The only dress code in our world was instituted by us and it was just this: make damn sure you looked like everybody else. Giant-sized work coat with no shape to it, block-color wool hat keeping you warm over a button-up shirt, khaks or jeans, and a pair of boots. Any and all logos got taped over or torn out. Used to be a time when everyone wore ’em, no longer. Those kinds of identifiers could bring trouble down on you. The hard truth was, we were all targets. We were all the color of poor and just trying to survive the same sinking ship. For real. Can’t say that the Kung Fu rep isn’t deserved though.

If it was your first week at KFHS, I pitied you. On my first Friday, my brother pulled me aside before the welcome assembly and we watched from the brick pillars in front of the gym as all the freshmen got surrounded. Didn’t matter if you were a guy or a girl. You got kicked in. You learned the hard way who ruled the school. By the time your next year rolled around, you couldn’t wait for some ignorant freshmen to walk through the courtyard with color-coded binders clutched to their chests and fear in their eyes.

And you kicked them in the chin too. When they were prone on the ground, you lifted their arms up out of that crybaby fetal position and unloaded on the armpit lymph node because you weren’t really kicking them so much as the kids that kicked you the year before. You broke bones, aimed for joints. You spat on split faces. You took tufts of hair as partial scalps and pressed them in the clear plastic folders meant for science reports and then hung them up inside your locker so no one would fuck with you. It was the only way not to be next.

Violence wasn’t just for us though. It was for everyone who ever came near. Other high schools would send their sports teams but no fans when it came time to play us on the athletic schedule. North High School had a hired security team on hand the day they beat us by twelve points on our court but it didn’t matter. In a rare showing of school spirit, every player on their basketball team, the security guys with their sheathed clubs, and the coaches with their clipboards, all got various vertebrae kicked in by our “fans,” who were really just there to roll and not for any other reason. We were suspended from all athletic competitions for a year after that and were only let back in after Principal Dermoody agreed to hold games without any fans at all, just to keep up pretenses. Then floodlight-equipped helicopters had the habit of flying overhead on game days, lighting up the quad, and the kids that sat in ambush and hid in the trees with their belts wrapped around their knuckles had to duck low into the branches and make like bird nests to avoid getting spotted.

So why didn’t anything get solved by the powers that be? Why weren’t the bad guys caught, tried, and sent to jail? Truth, justice, and more of that awesome American Way, where was all that shit? Situated squarely behind greed, I guess. Let’s start with the food chain:

algae/students → protists/teachers → squid/administration → seals/cops → walruses/lawyers & judges & media → killer whale/Ridley

Students didn’t matter, next to worthless. You were in or you were out. If you were in, expect some early morning dope runs before hockey practice. If you were out, you were fair game at all times. If you didn’t know how to defend yourself, either leave or find someone who could watch your back 24–7. Impossible, right? Those were just a few unwritten regulations.

Teachers there to protect you? Yeah, right. Nobody cared about the teachers. Either they were passionate believers in the power of teaching to change the disenchanted youth, who got in nice cars at the end of the day and went back to cookie-cutter houses in the suburbs, or they were deadbeats, ex-cons who slipped through the cracks without a background check. And all of ’em were on Ridley’s payroll. Except for Mr. Wilkes, the chemistry teacher. He’d been there longer than anyone’s oldest brothers and sisters can even remember.

The Administration? That’s a joke too. From what I hear, Principal Dermoody was the one who masterminded the restructured school lunch program so that Ridley could run his drugs out of the shipping trucks. In: frozen pizza, freeze-dried potatoes, and horseburger. Out: Champa, Spillback, Razorhead, Warped, Mixit, Agrenophene, Smoke, EX-O, Tapwap, and Giggledust.

The cops didn’t count either. Well, they counted, but different than you think. They caught a thick kickback on every shipment that went by the precincts. I’m talking percentages here. Probably in the realm of 12 percent and trust me when I say that they knew about every single shipment and how much it carried; they made sure to get their 12 percent on every ounce.

Lawyers, judges, media? You aren’t getting it yet, are you? Everyone was in on it. Everyone. It’s no coincidence that old white dudes that used to be driving Cadillacs and Mercurys started driving Benzes and Beemers, and the rich fools that were driving Benzes and Beemers upgraded to Porsches and whatever else the next level was. If none of that connects the dots for you, believe this: Ridley even had regular dinners at the mayor’s house as a welcome and invited guest. The poached salmon with garlic and herb sauce, that was his most favorite meal there.

So, how could something so rock solid, so positively fuckin’ entrenched go wrong? A complex, well-supported system like that couldn’t possibly be wiped out in one day, could it? In a word, yes. But really, I can sum it up in two: Jimmy Chang. He was the rebel (if refusing to fight in a cauldron of fighters can be called that) when he came to Kung Fu HS halfway through my sophomore year and he wasn’t any hero then. He was just my cousin.


The day Jimmy came, me and Dad were in the kitchen. He didn’t knock. He just walked right in through the front door. It really was our fault that it wasn’t locked. Didn’t matter though. Jimmy didn’t have time to say hello because Kyuzo caught him by the throat and slammed him against the near wall in the entryway, putting an imprint into the dirty old deco wallpaper. Dad and I didn’t see it, but we heard it. More like we heard the breaking of the wooden wall-hanging my parents got in Germany all those years ago when they lived there. It was a carved likeness of some tiny city with a river through it, can’t remember which, but in two pieces it was just a city on one side and a bridge and river on the other.

Dad used to be in the Air Force and they were stationed there in Deutschland. Believe it or not, Kyuzo was born at Spangdahlem Air Base. I still call him a fuckin’ nazi if I get mad enough, just to get under his skin. He’s named after the swordsman character in The Seven Samurai because Dad loved that movie so much, but I just call him by his nickname, Cue. Because Kyu = Cue, or Cue Ball, on account of his shiny bald head. Dad loved Japan always. He used to be stationed there too, once.

It’s generally rare for any business to follow us home from Kung Fu, but it’s happened before. I got up slow and brought two knives with me into the hallway but they were unnecessary because Cue and Jimmy were already laughing super loud and it echoed into the kitchen. I couldn’t put them back though. Habit.

“Jen, Dad, Jimmy’s here!” Cue yelled too loudly. “Oh, man, what the hell are you doing here? Can’t you at least ring the bell?”

Just hearing his name, I felt my mother’s disavowing ice pick of a look all over again. I felt the hidden part of me that still was that defiant, cold girl returning her gaze and making ice cubes in between. Like I’d grown up completely encircling that hidden, staring me—left her intact like a nested Russian doll down deep. As untouched as the pencil mark on the kitchen entryway to measure my height at twelve. I fought that emotional old shit though. Pushed it down, all five feet and eight straggling inches of me. Below that.

I took the corner and just held the knives out naively, like a cheerleader offering up her pompoms for the home team. The city part of the wall-hanging was on the floor and the bridge half hung crookedly above it, still on the wall. Funny how the exterior was a dark brown but the inside was just normal, aged-looking wood. Untouched by the stain, it looked like yellowy bone, marrow even. Percussive though. It had sounded like claves when it hit the tile. Just once, like TAC.

“Are those knives for me?” Jimmy had his arm around Cue and with his other hand, he rubbed at the growing red spot at the base of his neck.

“Dinner, crazy boy. Hope Cue taught you good not to walk right into people’s houses without ringing the doorbell.”

That’s all that came out of my mouth and I’m lucky it did. I mean, at least it wasn’t garbled or anything. And at least I didn’t stammer or just stop talking altogether. Because I hadn’t seen Jimmy in years and he was gorgeous. Even with the farmer-boy mop on his head, the thick black strands couldn’t hide his light brown eyes. I felt a twinge in my stomach when he pushed his hair off his forehead and leaned his head back into the weak hall light.

Yup, his brown eyes were just as light as they’d ever been. Like bright sunlight passing through label-less brown beer bottles, they shined at me. Mental note: NOT allowed to feel sexual attraction to cousin. The best part was, non-embarrassment-wise, I didn’t drop the knives when I led the boys into the kitchen. They just pushed past me into the dining room anyway. A waist-high, partition-type wall separated the two rooms.

“Uncle B.—what happened?” Jimmy asked as Dad, tired as he was, tried to push himself up on his walker.

“Shit, your mom didn’t tell you? Modern construction. Can you believe it? Always wear your helmet, son.”

Dad shook Jimmy’s hand and smiled his halfway smile that had sat on his face ever since the accident. I could tell he was smiling for real though because the vein in his neck twinged and that only happened when he meant it to.

“Foreman Dad took his helmet off for a water break and a brick fell on him.”

I said it as I took the pasta noodles off the boil. They were a little soft because I’d left the pot on the burner. If they complained, I’d blame it on Jimmy.

“It was damn hot that day. What do you want from me, mi angelita?”

Dad put his hands in the air. Insert canned laugh track. I didn’t turn around, didn’t react to his little drama, just told the draining noodles my answer all low: nada. Nada, I said, to that full sieve. The literal translation in the dictionaries is always one word: nothing. But to me, when I breathed the accented syllables into the steam, pushing a coat of fog onto the window, it meant less/more than nothing at the same time. A push/pull kind of nothing. A go-away-but-don’t-go-away kind of nothing. A please die/don’t die kind of nothing. It always canceled itself out.

“What the heck is you doing here, stealthy? Why the big bag?” Cue’s voice broke my thoughts like he knew them, then made sure to change gears. “You know, I heard you when you passed the mailbox. If you want to sneak up on me again, don’t wear cowboy boots.”

The hick. The big shitkicker. Jimmy didn’t have an answer. He just looked at me like he was a lost puppy while I shredded the cheese into the smallest bowl we had. Thank god for self-control. I almost told them both that he could sleep in my bed right then.

“So, what? You’re living here?”

I could see Cue putting two and two together from all the way across the kitchen, over the partition, and inside the dining room beside the packed bookcase. He sat down at the table and motioned for Jimmy to do the same.

“No. I mean, yeah, if I can and that’s cool with you guys and Uncle B.,” Jimmy said, adding, “You didn’t get the letter?”

He had to push a stack of old newspapers out of the way before he could pull a chair out and sit down between Dad and Cue.

“Sure we did. Blue envelope. Marin still has great handwriting, like your mamá’s used to be.” Dad said it like me and Cue had forgotten. Jimmy kind of nodded. I didn’t say shit, only tore the last of the lettuce harder.

“Oh yeah, we heard you got in trouble but we figured it was no big deal. I mean, not compared to what we go through, Farm Boy. Besides, you probably just slapped somebody.” With that said, Cue smacked Jimmy lightly across the cheek, rolled his eyes, and made a little girly scream to accompany it, “Ay!”

“I got in a fight.” Jimmy actually lowered his head when he said it.

Cue and I just laughed at that, at the words, at his shame, at everything. I was setting the salad and cheese bowls on the table and Cue looked me up and down with his wide silly smile before poking me right in my splenectomy scar. I squirmed but spilled nothing. Only he knew where it was. Got that ruptured from a body blow. Good thing it’s out now. Only way to make sure it’ll never happen again. Surgery sure sucked though. I mean, everything in my torso was tender for weeks and weeks. Everything. I could barely eat. Lost thirteen pounds and I even got a cold when I was recovering too. Coughing was like getting beaten up all over again. Total nightmare.

“Yeah, well, it was completely Mom’s idea, which was why she wrote the letter. I had to promise her I’d never fight again though.”

Probably for the first time since Jimmy had walked in, the house was completely quiet. Even though the big pot was off the boil and empty of noodles, a few bubbles rolled to the surface of the splash of water left in it and popped. I just watched them, scooping pasta onto the plates without looking down. The letter hadn’t said anything about that.

Cue laughed the silence right out the door.

“What, like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air meets Fists of Fury? You be a cross between Will Smith and Bruce Lee? You’re fuckin’ lying to me! Hey, Jen, you finally got something to write about!”

Cue had the biggest smile on his face I’d seen in a long time. He always did when he was teasing me about my notebooks. Genuinely though, he was excited. He was convinced it was a joke, and a good one too. Because he knew. I knew. Hell, even Dad knew that Jimmy was the best fighter in the whole family. Always had been. With him fighting too, the Waves would win the Grand Championships again. No doubt.

“Dead serious, man. I promised my mom. No more fighting. None.”

Maybe it’s because I’ve been hit so many times that it makes you harebrained but I’m more sensitive to things like changes in temperature ever since I made a habit of acquiring broken bones and, honestly, the temperature in the room lowered when Jimmy said those words. Fahrenheit five degrees easily, and I was standing in front of the stove.

“Well, you in trouble then, primo, cuz if you expect to come to the Fu, you gotta roll.”

Cue flexed and his black wife-beater shuddered. Trap muscles grew up next to his neck like pyramid ramps to his head made out of that dinosaur capsule stuff that expands when you put it in water. His biceps rolled over onto themselves like snowballs becoming snowboulders rolling too fast down a powdery hill and the scar on his left pectoral muscle made a sidewinding motion like the desert snake. That was Cue’s move too. The Sidewinder.

“The Fu?” Just after he said it, Jimmy patted his stomach and gave me a look that said he approved of my cooking, or the smell of it at least. Bless him.

“Kung Fu High School, kid,” I said.

Cue just made a face at me. And that was okay. We’d take it outside later.

“Now that’s a joke, right?”

“Maybe it used to be but it ain’t anymore,” I said as I put two plates down, one in front of Jimmy and one in front of Dad.

“Thank you.” Dad said it soft.

“Yeah, thanks,” Jimmy said, clapping his hands once.

“Ah, you’ll be alright though. You’re legacy. You’re a Wave, baby, just like me and Jen.”

Cue spun me around and pulled my loose T-shirt up to show Jimmy the Yakuza-style tattoo that covered my entire back. I fidgeted a little as he pulled down my bra strap to show Jimmy the tan fishing boat between my shoulder blades. The whole thing had taken four visits to complete. We’d got some old Japanese guy in Little Ginza to do it for a hundred bucks and it looks real good too with its waves that look like rounded fish scales crashing into the center meridian of my back. Big puffy-faced clouds blow looping visible wind from my shoulder blades onto the surface of the water from both sides, so that it traps the fisherman in his boat.

“It’s the storm of all storms,” Cue said before tapping the outline of the fisherman on my spine, “and it only comes for one at a time.”

He was almost as proud of it as I was. Jesus, did it take a long time to heal though. The guy said one month but it was more like two because I kept rolling over on my back at night when I was asleep and rubbing the lotion off with the sheet. I didn’t mean to, just happened. It was a damn good thing I got the work done in the summer and not during the school year. That would’ve been trouble.

“Just what’re you guys into?”

Quiet as he always was during such conversations, Dad even laughed when Jimmy said that. There were a few things he needed to be told.

Kungfu excerpt feat

Kung Fu High School

An Excerpt

Text by Ryan Gattis

  • “[An] ultraviolent, dystopian debut novel from Ryan Gattis, the spawn of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Cormier.”

    Publishers Weekly
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Ryan Gattis