01 August 2014

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

There are some books about life as a teenager that so perfectly capture what my life was like when I was sixteen.  Then there are books that perfectly capture what normal teenagers’ lives are like when they are sixteen.  Grasshopper Jungle was definitely one of the latter.  It was intense, absorbing, and a hell of a lot of fun.  But it did remind me how weird my teenage years were, enshrouded as they were in a haze of antidepressants.

So, to summarize: Austin Szerba and his best friend, Robby Brees, accidentally unleash a race of unstoppable six-foot-tall praying mantis soldiers on their hometown of Ealing, Iowa.

Put that way, it oversimplifies the book.  And strangely, I thought Grasshopper Jungle was at its best when it was dealing with things other than the end of the world.  I have no doubt it was intended to be so, but still, it bears mentioning.

The story is told in first person from Austin’s point of view, looking back at the week of events that led to the end of the world.  Austin is fascinated with history, filling books with his own history each and every day.  One of the things he talks about, constantly, is how humans tend to implicitly trust history, without knowing its provenance.  It wasn’t until about 3/4 of the way through the book before I realized I too was doing this, trusting Austin to know things he couldn’t actually know.

It made me wonder if Austin was an unreliable narrator, but by the end, my questions had been answered as regards Austin’s sources.

It’d be hard to examine the lives of 16-year-olds without addressing love and sex, and this is where Grasshopper Jungle really shone.  Austin’s budding sexuality, his confusion on the issue of love, were all portrayed beautifully and realistically.  Austin’s constant horniness could have easily devolved into caricature (or worse, erotica) but instead, he was open and honest and, at times, even lyrical about what it’s like to be a hormonal boy.

Grasshopper Jungle is one of the best books I've read this year, hands down. There’s more I want to say about it, but heed this warning:

STOP READING HERE IF YOU WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS.

My favorite part of the novel was Austin’s best friend, Robby Brees, and more particularly, their relationship.  It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Robby Brees is gay, since that’s established fairly early in the novel.  It’s refreshing to see a gay character portrayed as being much more than just their “gayness.”  Robby is Austin’s best friend first and foremost.

There were some truly heartbreaking moments - like when Robby and Austin went to a gay bar to get a “preview of Robby’s future” - but it was far more heartwarming that by and large the characters who knew Robby just accepted him, and being gay wasn’t a big issue. In fact, Austin frequently points out that Robby Brees is a superhero. It's one of my favorite bits.

Now, here's where I delve into spoiler territory.  The relationship between Austin and Robby, as they experimented (it’s always italicized like that in the book) was so well done.  Austin was absolutely confused, and, as Robby points out to him late in the book, rather selfish as well.  It should be noted that Austin is dating a girl at this time as well.

Anyway, as Austin and Robby try to come to terms with each other, and just where the line between love-as-best-friends and love-as-lovers falls, you get a very real sense of what it’s like for these two boys as they try to figure it all out.  And the answer was pretty surprising.

I really enjoyed the ending of Grasshopper Jungle too.  It was bittersweet and hopeful at the same time.  Just the way I like it.