Book Review: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
Well, this is certainly one of the oddest books I’ve read in a long time.
In Grasshopper Jungle, we meet 16-year-old Austin Szerba, who lives in Ealing, Iowa and is very much in love with his girlfriend Shann… and with his best friend Robby. Austin spends much of his time either confused or horny, or both. Ealing is a dead-end town that dried up after its major business, McKeon Industries, shut its doors and left most of the Ealing residents unemployed — as a result of which, stores have shut down, people are constantly being foreclosed or evicted, and the entire town has a feeling of hopelessness.
And then one day, things take a decided turn for the apocalyptic. In a weird confluence of events, Austin and Robby get beaten up, some nasty boys steal a McKeon Industries artifact that contains a lethal mold, and a chain of events starts that leads to the end of the world as we know it. This particular end of the world takes the form of 6-foot-tall praying mantises with exoskeletons strong as armor who only want to do two things…
It’s up to Austin, Shann, and Robby to save the world — or not, maybe. Or possibly just figure out what the heck is going on and salvage what they can. Oh, and also figure out what their own little triangle means, and whether anything good can possibly come of it. And yeah, maybe repopulate the planet, if necessary.
Along the way, we get Austin’s family history, all the way back to his great-great-many times great-grandfather in Poland, his descendants and their twisted history, and all the little turns of fate or coincidence that lead them to Ealing, Iowa and a plague of unstoppable, lethal, giant insects.
Austin is an historian, recording everything in his notebooks with a commitment to honesty, while at the same time noting that all written history is, of necessity, an abbreviation. No one can ever record every single thing, so what we end up learning is the bits and pieces that the recorders felt most important, but not necessarily the entire truth.
In Austin’s version of history, we read about Presidents and testicles, agricultural experiments and cave paintings, the Rolling Stones and skateboards. We also learn about love and devotion, confusion and yearning, friendship and bravery, and how dangerous a crazy person with a science lab can be.
The writing is funny, random, and rather Vonnegut-like in places. Odd facts and figures are inserted here and there in Austin’s narrative, and he returns over and over again to repeat certain phrases and thoughts throughout the book. Chief among these:
It was not a good idea.
You know what I mean.
Nobody knew anything about it.
And then there’s the word used by Austin and Robby more than any other in the book, “uh”, followed by the closely related “um”, which are all-purpose responses appropriate for almost all occasions:
Shann squirmed in her seat. She said, “Uh. Am I wrong about something, or do you two boys actually know something more than I do about what he’s talking about?
I said, “Uh.”
Robby said, “Uh.”
Grasshopper Jungle is strange and hilarious, often disgusting, completely rambling, with odd flights of free association and bizarre facts, and a connect-the-dots feel to it that shows either that all life is connected and that the smallest moments may have huge meaning and consequences… or that everything is random and trivial, and that nothing we do matters in the long run. But not really — even in the midst of giant bugs destroying humankind and chowing down on everyone they encounter, there’s a sense of joyous celebration of life that keeps Grasshopper Jungle flying along despite the body parts and cataclysmic events.
Grasshopper Jungle is weird and wild, but utterly wonderful — in its own bug-infested, sex-obsessed, end-of-the-world way.
Title: Grasshopper Jungle
Author: Andrew Smith
Publisher: Dutton Books
Publication date: February 11, 2014
Length: 388 pages
Genre: Young adult/science fiction