If you used to like dystopian young adult fiction but you feel like it’s all starting to blur together, have I got the book for you: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith.
I’ll start with this non-spoiler note for parents: this is definitely not for young kids. It’s told from the point of view of a sexually confused sixteen-year-old boy, and there’s plenty of strong language and fairly frank talk about sex, plus kids who smoke and occasionally drink. Oh, and some violence and gore and pretty creepy stuff. I’d recommend it for teen and adult readers who like end-of-the-world scenarios and off-the-beaten-path storytelling, because Grasshopper Jungle is so far off the path that you might as well throw away that compass. If your preference is for conventional, then steer clear, because this book turns up the quirk farther than I knew it could go without everything falling apart.
My advice, as in most cases, is to read the book without knowing anything else about it. Don’t even read the dust jacket flap.
However, if you must know more before making your decision, here’s the gist: Austin Szerba lives in Ealing, Iowa, a small town where pretty much nothing ever happens. He spends all his time with his gay best friend Robby and his girlfriend Shannon, and he’s pretty confused about which of them he actually likes better. At the beginning of the book, Austin and Robby are hanging out in the Grasshopper Jungle, their nickname for the alley behind the nearly-defunct Ealing Mall, when they get beat up by a couple kids who toss their shoes up onto the roof of the mall. Their efforts to retrieve the shoes set off a chain of events that leads to what Austin calls the “end of the world,” though nobody knew anything about it at the time.
The book is narrated in past tense—you know that Austin is telling you a story that has already happened, because he refers to things that are going to happen later in the story. He also inserts various bits and pieces of Ealing’s history, most notably McKeon Industries, which pretty much drove Ealing’s economic well-being in the 1960s during the Cold War. But when the plant shut down, Ealing’s fortunes faded with it. But Dr. Grady McKeon left some very bizarre things behind, things that Austin and Robby begin to discover.
Andrew Smith’s writing grabs you. He takes phrases and turns them into recurring motifs that punctuate the story, until by the end you start to expect them, maybe even mutter them to yourself. And the way that he takes all these seemingly disparate plot strands and weaves them together is masterful—some things that you think are just throwaway remarks are actually hints at what’s coming a hundred pages later.
The story is that Smith had gotten out of the business of writing a couple years ago, but still had that compulsion to write. So he wrote Grasshopper Jungle pretty much for himself, not expecting it to be a book he would sell or try to publish. Then things happened (including the fact that Sony has acquired movie rights already). But I think that’s what makes it such a refreshing read: it’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see somebody pitching on Kickstarter these days or self-publishing on Amazon, instead of coming from a traditional publisher. I started reading it and plowed through it, and I was amazed by the way Smith combines a gripping, creepy plot with hilarious and insightful observations about human nature (as seen from the point-of-view of a horny sixteen-year-old boy).
I’ll end with an excerpt from the first page of the book:
This is my history.
There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizzas, and cruelty.
If that piques your curiosity, then check it out. Once you get lost in Grasshopper Jungle, you won’t want to be found.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this book for review.