You know when a book just seems entirely written to fit your tastes? Grasshopper Jungle is one of those books for me. When I first heard about it, I knew it was coming from Egmont imprint Electric Monkey, who are brilly at ace Teen/YA novels – So that ticked one box. Then I found it was a coming-of-age story, which I love as well, being a perpetually confused youngling (SEE: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Catcher in the Rye, etc) – So that ticked a second box. OH, & it features homicidal Six Foot Tall Praying Mantises. Believe it or not, that also ticks a box for me – I’ve loved a good giant bug b-movie since I was a teenager, so I requested a proof as soon as possible. And oh. Oh boy.
Austin Szerba is a confused young man. Sixteen years old & unable to keep his mind focused on much more than sex & cigarettes. The book opens with him living his day to day life, chronicling his own personal history & the history of the rundown town of Ealing, Iowa, with his girlfriend, Shann Collins, who he loves, & with his best friend Robby Brees Jr, who he also loves. Possibly in the same way. Austin doesn’t think he’s gay, but his best friend is, & the two of them have a definite, unspoken attraction, so naturally he’s very confused about life. One day, skating in the stretch of abandoned wasteland in Ealing’s failing shopping mall – Known locally as Grasshopper Jungle, Austin & Robby are set upon by some older boys, who embark on some good old-fashioned bullying, beating the two up, before throwing their shoes on the roof of the nearby second hand store – From Attic to Seller. That night, the two friends decide to return to the shop & climb onto the roof & recover their discarded footwear, & once there, curiosity drives them into the back office of the store via a skylight on the roof. What they find, is a strange, morbid collection of old scientific experiments, severed heads, hands, two headed boys in jars, & some glowing blue mould marked MI Plague Strain 412E in a glass globe. Whilst fascinated by the dark & macabre displays in the back office of From Attic to Seller, the bullies from earlier in the day also break in, with the goal of stealing some booze from the adjoining liquor store. Austin & Robby manage to hide in the office, but overhear the older boys stealing the glowing orb of mould. And that is the night that started the end of the world. You see, once dropped, MI Plague Strain 214E is unleashed, mixing with Robby’s blood that stains the concrete in Grasshopper Jungle – With horrific consequences. Life in Ealing, Iowa, continues to tumble onwards, full of lonely drunks & failing businesses, while slowly, inside four teenage boys, grows a new, apex predator, bred in the Cold War from plant & insect DNA to be an unstoppable soldier. As more people come into contact with the broken globe’s contents, a small but violently powerful force begin hatching from their hosts, & they have primal insect brains that really only want to do two things: Eat & Make Babies. Bulletproof, lightning quick & armed with razor arms & mandibles, the Unstoppable Soldiers really are the apex predator in Ealing. Can Austin, Robby & Shann solves their differences, fight off a horde of horny, hungry giant bugs, grow up & live happily ever after? The outlook isn’t great.
I have so much praise for this book. SO MUCH. It’s such a hard story to describe, & I do really hope I’ve done it justice in that synopsis. I mean, it’s just nuts, violent, rude, funny, powerful & outstanding. Austin is a phenomenal narrator of the story, his historically obsessed tangents adding a real depth to the universe of the Szerba family, the town of Ealing, Iowa, & the world that Grasshopper Jungle takes place in. He’s a sharp, sensitive teen, with a lot of love for Shann & Robby, & an overwhelming sense of guilt over not doing the right thing – A struggle I think I have on a daily basis. The way him & Robby interact is achingly sweet, as well as brilliantly cool-yet-awkward. Andrew Smith has nailed teen idle chat perfectly, in a way that a lot of other books right now tend to overdo in a very flowery, over the top manner – Really reminding me of the existential thought processes of Holden Caulfield. Robby & Shann are only ever viewed from Austin’s perspective, but his deep love for both of them makes them glow & crackle on the page with passion, energy & attitude. His descriptions of other townspeople are funny, sharply observant, & oftentimes deeply despondent, creating a skewed, tragic & chucklesome portrait of small town American life.
More than just a horror/science fiction story, Grasshopper Jungle approaches concepts of sexual identity & confusion in an open, honest way that is seriously lacking in so much fiction for teens at the moment. It discusses the idea of bisexuality in a very down to earth way, without demonising it, & I think it’s a woefully misunderstood aspect of many young people’s lives that they need to be shown is perfectly okay. This book does that, it tackles with Austin’s inner confusion, probably an idea that many developing teenagers have been afraid to approach in their own “real” life, & that’s a very important idea that needs to be embraced more often in a funny, down-to-earth & relatable way. It also uses humour to make sexual topics seem much more approachable, less serious & just fun.
Also, did I mention giant bugs? The story is brilliantly teased out with an impending sense of dread, told in a Historical style from Austin’s future self, & using the old videos to slowly reveal the horrible history of the Unstoppable Soldiers – I found it absolutely enthralling reading, especially with the dry, witty narrative style that Andrew Smith uses to explain the end of the world. It has a wry sense of whimsy about such a violent situation, making the whole story a blood soaked black comedy like nothing else. I don’t feel like I’m describing the book well…
LOOK, this book is weird & funny, rude & violent, important in how it deals with difficult subjects & just… Crazy. It’s not for everyone, but if this has stirred your interest, you’re going to love it.
And that was our day. You know what I mean.
P.S. Obviously, in case you hadn’t gathered from my review, Grasshopper Jungle is pretty high-end teen, not suitable for younger readers. I’d say 15 upwards.