The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

How the Day Sounds Through this New Song (Review: Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith)

Grasshopper Jungle 
Andrew Smith 
Dutton Juvenile 2014

Unusually, I'd like to introduce this review by saying that all three of us have read and loved this book. In fact, Splendibird even tried to review it but it broke her brain and she kept using words like beautisome and circulosity and holywow because it's THAT GOOD. Lucky, Cannonball was able to keep his wits about him and get something down on paper:

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, pizza, and cruelty.

There are indeed. All of the above are lurking between the covers of Grasshopper Jungle, lying in wait and scoping out the tactical terrain of you brain, scanning for an opening where they can begin their incursion and start laying waste to your psyche. Don't panic though, their invasion may leave flaming piles of dearly-held values and the crumpled wreckage of literary preferences in its wake but it provides so much more in reparations once the carnage subsides.

Splendibird is rarely wrong when it comes to matching books to my tastes so when she mentioned Andrew Smith's debut just prior to a welcome trip back to Scotia I snatched the title from Amazon's virtual bookshelves before you could say "Hey Cannonball, don't you hate Amazon?". This little number had apparently been generating quite the buzz in YA land so my curiosity was duly piqued and my holiday reading secured. Didn't expect it to finish it before even touching down though.

The synopsis first. Austin Szerba inhabits the ailing Iowa town of Ealing, a settlement vying for promotion to poster child for the broken ruins of the American Dream. Industry has been replaced by alcoholism, thriving storefronts by liquor stores and pawnshops. In the background float Austin and his best friend Robby who is, like, so totally gay. This confuses poor Austin because gay has something to do with sex so it makes him horny. In fact everything, by virtue of its mere having come into existence, taunts Austin with sexual innuendo: his dog; his stapler; his girlfriend, Shann. Yeah, the whole 'girlfriend' thing tends to complicate all those "My gay friend is really cool and hot and what if I'm gay too and would it be cool if I kissed him and what would Shann think and would she join in?" kind of thoughts. So when a shattered jar of glowing ooze unleashes unstoppable six-foot grasshopper warriors on the town things get... difficult.

As far as plot goes, that's it. Bumbling around, grasshopper soldier invasion, PANIC! Except that the last part doesn't happen and that, for me, it where Andrew Smith manages to elevate Grasshopper Jungle above the reams of YA sci-fi packing the shelves recently. Not a dig against the genre, instead very high praise indeed. This novel manages to articulate the confounding, warped reality of adolescence with a truly rare clarity. Austin's obsession with chronicling the minutiae of a life and town in which nothing ever happens forms the backbone of the book. From dissertations on the changing fortunes and surname-spellings of his Polish ancestors to his virginal musings on sex, the likelihood of his ever having sex, which objects are socially acceptable to have sex with and so on, Austin's train of thought rarely stays on one track for more than a few pages. The rambling holds centre stage, relegating the homicidal mutant shock-troops to an afterthought. After all, who has time to talk about the imminent end of the world when they really need pizza?

In this respect Grasshopper Jungle put me in mind of two respected sci-fi authors, one a rising star and the other a supernova casting his light over all his peers. The first is David Wong of John Dies At The End fame. It's the subject matter. The wilful weirdness splatters you from every flicked page. Andrew Smith has the same playful aspect, the drive to tinker, to innovate instead of sliding into well-worn ruts. That takes care of the content.

The style recalls none other than Kurt Vonnegut, hallowed be his name. The words slouch from page to page with a laconic torpor which slowly oozes through the walls to the reader's psyche, locking you into mind of the protagonist. It's a style which Vonnegut perfected and which is often aped but almost never successfully. Andrew Smith pulls it off, appropriately without breaking a sweat. The confusion and tumult of adolescence are perfectly subsumed in a comfort blanket of teenage "meh, whatever" that somehow manages to engage the reader rather than repel them.

Overall it's an utter winner of a novel. A classic coming of age story set against a backdrop of eschatological etymological mayhem, it has appeal varied enough to draw fans not only of excellent YA, sci-fi and bizarro fare but also connoisseurs of accomplished literature. Assuming the world doesn't end too soon I'm predicting big things from Andrew Smith in the future. If Grasshopper Jungle is any indication we may have a serious talent on our hands here.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Grasshopper Jungle is available now, as is the excellent Winger by the same author. We urge you - URGE YOU - to go and buy a copy of both RIGHT NOW.
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