It’s always a little strange when new fiction tackles current issues. Once you consider publishing schedules, the authors who write these texts seem downright prescient. In Air, Ryan Gattis takes on police brutality in Baltimore, and creates an instant — if flawed — classic in the process.
Air centers on Grey Monroe: a mixed-race teenager who has relocated to Baltimore following the tragic murder-suicide that claimed the lives of his parents. The former BMX enthusiast finds a new passion when he meets Akil, a young man who enjoys street bikes and follows a local daredevil named Kurtis. Grey and Akil get involved with Kurtis and his crew after they become his impromptu saviors following a parachuting stunt.
For a while, the group is happy to perform dangerous stunts for YouTube attention. But when tragedy strikes, and a notorious police officer is to blame, the friends retool their mission into a Black Lives Matter-esque movement to call out the brutality aimed at the street bike community.
Gattis’ novel isn’t perfect. Grey’s calculated retaliation for a mugging in Air‘s early chapters involves a stolen copper pipe. The thievery and violence aren’t seen elsewhere in the novel, and so the incident later feels out of character for the passionate teen.
Many readers may take issue with Air‘s handling of race. Gattis, “a white-boy fiction writer from Colorado,” doesn’t present much evidence that police attitudes toward the bikers are clouded by color. In fact, the only real racial tension comes when Grey mentions feeling out of place in the black community, thanks to his lighter skin. Although it’s clearly not Gattis’ place to write a treatise on the African-American experience, there are times when Air dances around what could be a thoughtful exploration of race in the U.S.
There’s also the problem of Gattis’ descriptions of characters’ skin tones. Food metaphors abound, and are often cringe-worthy. Admittedly, the contention here may be more of a personal bugaboo, but it made this reader reluctant to meet any new characters as Air unfolded.
Thankfully, Air largely avoided the pitfalls of fake AAVE that have grounded recent young adult offerings. One author’s insensitive, invented slang delayed her YA novel, and poorly constructed colloquialisms — among a host of other problems — made Static almost unreadable.
This is all to say that, wherever Air did well, it might have excelled, if given a few more tweaks. As it stands, it’s a nice — if disjointed — addition to the young adult shelves.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.
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