Book Review : Ryan Gattis - Air (2016)
I know, I know. I'm reviewing another freakin' young adult novel and it's not what you guys want to see here. The reason why I'm reviewing Air is that Ryan Gattis is one of most requested authors on this site and this is his only paperback available in Canada. That's a lot of pressure to put on a man's writing alone, right? Was Ryan Gattis talented enough to win me over with a YA novel, a genre I've openly criticized for years on this site? Well, turns out that he kind of is. Air doesn't avoid certain pitfalls you'd expect from YA, but I was entertained and... slightly moved.
Ryan Gattis understands what it is to be a teenager.
Air is the story of Grey Monroe, a young man who witnesses the murder of his mother by his estranged father. He is relocated to Baltimore after the tragedy, under the care of his aunt Blue. Grey is met with hostility by local kids until he meets Akil, who he starts riding bikes with. Impressed by Grey's skills, Akil introduces him to Kurtis, the leader of a movement who uses extreme sports and death-defying stunts as a form of activism. Grey is about to be empowered in a way he couldn't imagine ever being by becoming the worst nightmare of every parent in America.
So, it's a novel about kids throwing themselves off buildings for YouTube views. How is that empowering to teenagers exactly? Well, it's complicated and simple at the same time. The stunts are an allegory for challenging your limitations. Kurtis, Akil and Grey are doing it in a quite literal way by challenging the limits of what a human body can do, but they seek to inspire young people to challenge their social limitations and, most pertinent here, the predefined stereotypes. The message of Air is, more or less: don't let the color of your skin dictate who you are, even if it does in other people's mind. Quite uplifting, if a little breakneck-y.
Still not getting how the dots connect here? I don't blame you. It has to do with how young men think and Ryan Gattis really nailed that aspect. Follow my drift: Kurtis, Akil, and Grey first do the stunts because they can and because it makes them feel alive, but once they get an audience, it emboldens them to grow bigger and bolder than they ever would've otherwise and... most important, to brazenly challenge the police. This is where the dots connect here. The kids are challenging an established order who wouldn't mind them out on the street, by doing something fucking crazy and illegal, but creative and uplifting. Kurtis, Akil and Grey put the system in a moral dilemma and THAT is really cool.
Of course, I rolled my eyes a couple times at how benevolent and didactic (read devoid of tension) Air was, but I'm a 35 years old man reading a young adult novel, this kind of disconnect was predictable. The teenage self didn't care for books marketed to my demographic. I wanted to read what the adults were reading. But 35 years old me thinks I would've liked Air. Because Ryan Gattis understands how young man thinks and doesn't delve into cliché and preachy bullshit. If you're reading this, Air is probably not in your wheelhouse, but if you have a teenage son, it's probably in his. And make sure to check out Ryan Gattis.
Dude's got game.