A review of Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith
Dutton Books, 2014
by REBECCA, February 10, 2014
Best friends Austin and Robby didn’t mean to get their asses kicked by the local yahoos. Austin didn’t mean to fall in love with both Robby and his girlfriend, Shann. And Austin and Robby certainly didn’t mean to witness the beginning of the end of the world. But it all happened. That’s history. And that’s the truth.
Our narrator, Austin, tells us, “good books are always about everything,” and Grasshopper Jungle certainly comes close (76). One day, Austin and Robby get beat up; that night the kids who did the beating accidentally let loose a plague of six-foot-tall praying mantises on the town of Ealing, Iowa. In between attempting to fight these laboratory-made “Unstoppable Soldiers” before they take over the world, Austin has to do battle with his own hormones, is concerned that maybe something’s wrong with him because he’s in love with both Robby and Shann, and untangles the history of his Polish ancestors to understand the vagaries by which he ended up in Ealing, Iowa, fighting Unstoppable Soldiers, in love with his two best friends.
Grasshopper Jungle also contains: one oft-shitting dog, multiple grinning lemur masks, a house with doors that lead nowhere, the acute anxiety of losing one’s balls, a real dynamo of an Iowa name, one small-town gay bar, The Chocolate War, a heck of a lot of corn, a heck of a lot of semen, and one of the more awesome main characters out there.
There is nothing I can say about the delightful plot of this spec-fic romp that will really matter, so I won’t describe it any more. Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith writes in his acknowledgements, is a book that he felt free to write because he believed no one would ever see it. It certainly reads that way: free to explore its own obsessions; free to cross genres and evade expectations.
Austin is smart, caring, and hyper-aware of his own libido, and it’s his obsessions that drive the book (alongside, you know, those six-foot-tall praying mantises). Austin is also an historian of his own life, daily chronicling the truth of everything that he experiences. He is necessarily aware that there is no way to accurately record everything, since that record would be longer than experience itself. Something is always necessarily left out, jettisoned like the extra consonants in the Americanization of his family’s Polish names (Szczerba –> Szcerba). As you might imagine, then, this is a book about connections—those among people and those across history. Crux, revision, elision, repetition: these are the modes of history.
The narrative is recursive, zig-zagging back and forth through space and in time to show those connections. It is a quivering, vertiginous take on the story that unfolds in the present, hatching from the constellation of history like the bugs of the novel’s title. As in all of Andrew Smith’s novels, the prose is perfectly suited to the subject matter, by turns lyrical and taxonomic, lending poetry to Austin’s repetitive cataloguing of people, places, and themes.
Grasshopper Jungle is hilarious, disgusting, sexy, and bizarre. If ever you doubted that history could describe the intimacy between a six-foot-tall praying mantis and a sixteen-year-old boy, this book will assuage it. Austin’s worldview is oriented to history, and he tells the truth, even when those are not the same thing. Indeed, it’s in the gaps of official history that lives are lived and personal histories played out. So, as Austin watches a major historical event unfold before his eyes (the end of the world, NBD), he turns ever backward, pulling himself through time to excavate this world event from his family’s personal history. But this is not fatalism; this is just the consequence of paying attention to details, connections, and the ways we cross our own stories, even as we live them.
In addition to being an interesting treatise on history and a smashing end-of-the-world story, Grasshopper Jungle is a real dynamo of a love story. Austin’s love for both Robby and Shann causes him grief—does it mean he’s gay? bisexual? how can he love them both without hurting anyone? Even with very few words, Smith communicates the dynamic between Robby and Austin and, particularly moving, Robby’s reaction to the realization that he might have a chance at romance with Austin in addition to friendship. Austin’s attention to the romances of his ancestors and the problems that being gay posed for some of them gives him context for his feelings, if not answers to the questions they pose.
Anyone who reads C&M knows Andrew Smith is one of my all-time favorite authors. His books are smart and tender and they tell truths. Grasshopper Jungle lives up to every promise Smith’s oeuvre has made, and it does it all while wearing lemur masks, fighting enormous bugs, and constantly contemplating the uses for semen. Beat that.
I really can’t think of any readalikes for Grasshopper Jungle, so I’m just going to make an impassioned plea that you read all of Andrew Smith’s books. Here, I’ll help you get started:
Winger (2013). From my review: “Winger scores a solid five out of five snort-laughs on Rebecca’s goddammit-I-can’t-read-this-in-public-because-I-will-humiliate-myself-and-scare-the-parents-of-small-children index of reading reactions! (you’ll get it once you read the book). Note: “Catastrophic Fucking Penis Injury”—yes, that is a quote from the book—will be my new band name. We will be a death metal klezmer band and we will serve pastrami finger sandwiches at our concerts. Come early and come often.” Check out the full review HERE.
Stick (2011). From my review: “Stick is also a beautiful exploration of very different types of masculinity. Throughout the book, we get many examples of how Stick and Bosten’s father thinks men should be, down to his conviction that men don’t wear pajamas or use shampoo. Bosten and Stick don’t agree with their father’s notions, but, as Stick says, they never even thought about the rules. It’s just the way things are. Throughout Stick, then, Stick is exposed to multiple models of all the other ways to be a man there are besides his father’s, some violent, some desperate, some generous.” Check out the full review HERE.
The Marbury Lens (The Marbury Lens #1) (2010). From my review: “The Marbury Lens asks what it would feel like to suddenly become aware that the world you have thought to be all-encompassing actually breaks apart quite easily to reveal another world touching it.” Check out the full review HERE.
procured from: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith will be available tomorrow!