Sunday, February 16, 2014

Grasshopper Jungle (Andrew Smith)

Wow. Wow, wow, wow. Reading a book like Grasshopper Jungle is the sort of rare thing that you only get to do once or twice a year, if you're lucky. It's the kind of story that stains your eyeballs and floods your heart chambers and marks you up and weighs you down for a long time. It's delicious.

Austin and Robby are best friends in the tiny town of Ealing, Iowa. Austin has a girlfriend, Shann, whom he loves very much, a dog named Ingrid who can't bark, two parents and a brother fighting in Afghanistan. His moral dilemma at the beginning of the story? He's very much in love with Shann, but he is also very much in love with Robby. What's he to do?

The obvious answer is to end the world. Robby and Austin accidentally trigger apocalypse by unleashing an Unstoppable Virus that hatches massive praying mantises inside human bodies, giant insects that only want to eat and breed and are, well, unstoppable. The two boys find themselves wrapped up in the controversial McKeon Industries' scientific experiments (owned and operated by Shann's stepdad's deceased older brother!) and only they can save the world.

This is a book with many different levels: there's the Armageddon layer of the novel, where giant praying mantis warriors are ravaging the Earth. I'll evaluate that first. It rocks. In a world overrun with horrible zombie literature, it was refreshing to read a novel in which the end of the world is brought on by something as wacky as big, killer insects. McKeon Industries is a fascinating villain because, by the time the story kicks off, it has been nonexistent for about 40 years. The chief scientist, Grady, is a horror of a psycho, and watching his terror unfold decades after he is gone is maybe even scarier than if he were alive and orchestrating it himself.

It's a meditation on the weaving, paths-crossing, cyclical nature of history. I'm a sucker for this theme, something I know of I've spoken of before. Austin has this fascinating way of unfolding his story, going back in time to trace his ancestor's journey from Poland to America and his offspring's journey to Ealing, Iowa in a way that expands out into the whole universe. Everything is part of Austin's life and Austin's life is part of everything.

The book also looks at the small American town. In my review of Deep Winter, I expressed my frustration with this genre for populating a community with a bunch of stereotypes and then letting them do nothing interesting. That is certainly not the case with Smith's town in Iowa. It's got characters that, by the rules, fulfill certain character roles we expect of a small town, but Austin's everything-intersects style of narration, we get to see them being real people. They don't feel boring, even if they're marginal players.

Most importantly of all, for me, is Grasshopper Jungle's exploration of burgeoning romance and sexuality in teenage boys. Austin is in love with his two closest friends, and both of them love him, too, but he is trapped and alone and confused and worried and guilty and stuck. Austin's narration of his emotional pain is incredibly heartbreaking and it made me feel that really delicious, body-draining emptiness that is so rare and so painful and so perfect. More than anything about this book that is like a flashing neon sign inside of my body, Austin's turmoil is what will burn the longest and brightest.

Austin is what pulls this book together. His voice is strong, one of the strongest first-person narrators I've ever encountered.  Even if you don't understand what he is talking about (of course, none of us can understand the part about the buggy end of everything and only maybe some of us get the confusion of growing up and loving people), his feelings--complex and well-detailed--radiate outward from the page into the reader.

This is one of those rare times when I can only say "read this book" because I have no qualms. It is a wonderful, marvelous hodgepodge of anything and everything, and it really works. Go for it. Go buy Grasshopper Jungle. Please.

My rating: 5/5
Grasshopper Jungle on Goodreads
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