It’s beach read season, and you’ve copped to your YA obsession: you’re out and proud but you’re tired of wading through the mire of Katniss and Tris and Hazel Grace Lancaster’s run-on sentence thoughts, dancing and dawdling around the boy and life-or-death-challenge du jour in a meandering, self-obsessed, stream-of-consciousness soliloquy. Change it up.
Grasshopper Jungle is Andrew Smith’s entry into the “teen takes on the end of the world” literary canon. But unlike its blockbuster counterparts, the teen girl-driven Hunger Games and Divergents of the world, Grasshopper Jungle steers clear of the rambling, indecisive inner monologues, tech-dystopia future pastiche and government-organized “battle royales.”
Austin Szerba is the 16 year-old hero, with his dead-pan delivery of observations on life in the fading Midwestern hamlet of Ealing, Iowa, and the social hierarchy inherent therein. He navigates the end of the world with his best friend Robby Brees and his girlfriend Shann. If it looks like we’ve buried the lede there, that’s just a nod to Smith’s deft handling of the genre. This is a teenage boy’s coming-of-age story that just so happens to be set against the backdrop of the apocalypse, wherein a town already battered into submission by the recession is overrun by accidentally unleashed six-foot-tall man-eating praying mantises.
But really, that’s not exactly what it’s about. Austin is a teenage Socrates, forever questioning everything always in a repetitive fugue where the refrain always comes back to sex. He muses on the economy, his family’s Polish history, science, philosophy, human nature, Xanax, but mostly sex. Everything makes him horny. It goes without saying that this includes his longtime girlfriend Shann, who’s only just now considering sex as the next logical step. But this also includes Andrew’s confident gay best friend Robby. So Andrew now constantly questions his sexuality, even as he’s not quite sure what that means.
Austin’s voice differs from that of his female counterparts. Where the girls of YA are given long and winding inner monologues, colored by muddy, swirling digressions, and seemingly limitless page counts for the mere import of their thoughts, teen boy talk has a markedly different tone and timbre. Andrew’s thoughts are short, staccato bursts of rumination, darting from the philosophical (the merits of the behavior of the Vice President), to the practical (what will happen to his brother, a wounded war hero), and always circling back to the main theme (sex).
Grasshopper Jungle manages to be simultaneously deeply weird and touchingly mundane- but in a good way. Think of the everyday relatability of Juno or 10 Things I Hate About You. This is in part, because Smith is so deft at setting the scene, building the dull, corn-colored suburban world in which all the best teen drama takes place. All those YA dystopias are dripping in futuristic bells and whistles and for all the work that goes into construction on Panem and wherever it is Maze Runner is, they all end up more or less a pale pastiche of Detroit. A delicately textured suburban hellscape like Ealing, Iowa benefits from a specificity that resonates with those of us who grew up amongst the strip malls and subdivisions.
The subtly sci-fi elements in Grasshopper Jungle stay in the background until the plot thickens so much it has to come to the fore. Austin, Robby, and Shann – in between struggling with their sexuality and navigating the ins and outs of the lowest levels of the social totem pole – must fight off an army of giant bugs, the result of medical experiments gone awry.
Grasshopper Jungle, though refreshingly different from the blockbuster YA novels that paved the way for it, will shortly join their ranks: Sony acquired the rights to the movie in March. The book is out now.