AIR, by Ryan Gattis, is one of the best books I’ve read all year.
Grey is a guy who loves to get air – to ride his bicycle as fast as possible before taking off of a ramp or other stable structure and doing flips or other risky stunts. He doesn’t do this to be a risk-taker. He does it for the satisfaction of accomplishing something that seems to be impossible. He lives for the feeling of the air rushing past him and the pride he takes in planning and executing a difficult move.
Upon the murder of his mother, Grey is forced to move to Baltimore to live with his Aunt Blue. Once there, he finds that it’s not only his bi-racial heritage that makes him different, but the fact that he is new to town. He doesn’t get the jokes, have the accent, or know his way around. He also doesn’t live with his brothers and sisters any more. It’s a difficult adjustment and in the course of settling in, he is befriended by Akil Williams.
Akil has also lost his mom. Over the course of several weeks, Grey and Akil come to be closer than friends. They become brothers who trust one another and share a deep love of dirt biking and respect for a daring biker named Kurtis. When the opportunity arises for them to align themselves with Kurtis, they go for it immediately. The only trouble is the police in Baltimore are not happy to have kids riding dirt bikes in public places.
As the police put more and more pressure on the dirt bike riders to stay out of public places, the bikers become more and more resolved to show up the dirty tactics used by the police by becoming more and more visible. The way to do this is to perform ever more dangerous stunts while being videoed, then to post these to their site. Their videos go viral – and global. Along the way, they add a donation button and money begins to pour in to support their work. The question now is just what is their work and how best can they use their platform to force the changes they’d like to see.
With impressive writing, Ryan Gattis has written about characters that are fully formed. Each young man has a different personality and voice. Each has his own reason for being part of the group and pushing for the safety that comes with broadcasting wrongdoing – even though it increases the pressure on each of them. In addition, descriptions are well drawn. Dialogue is crisp and believable. The choice of words is spot on.
The conversations between Grey and Aunt Blue are nuanced and force readers to think about what they would do and how they would feel in similar circumstances. The exploration into Grey’s inner world is also very satisfying. Grey is not a kid who catches air so he can terrorize the public, deliver illegal drugs, or wreak havoc for the sake of destroying property. He is a kid who catches air to feel that moment of freedom right before the satisfaction of pulling off something difficult. His involvement in something bigger causes him to examine himself and his motives.
The action in AIR is enough to keep a reader reading, yet another reason to be engrossed by this book is the way in which Gattis causes readers to question the true meaning of freedom. Does it lie in being true to our own ideas of ourselves or to the ideas others have of us? How do we know when we are truly free? What do we do with that freedom?