I Have Never Been So Conflicted About a Book Ever (aka a book review of Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith)
Austin is a historian. That is what he does, he writes the truth. All of it. The glorious, messy – and in Austin’s case, incredibly horny – truth of life in Ealing, Iowa. And the end of the world. Because that is what happens. Six foot preying mantis like bugs – Unstoppable Soldiers – come and start devouring the planet. It is like a gloriously absurd episode of one of those Elvira movies I used to watch as a kid. Don’t pretend you didn’t watch them too. In fact, I can picture the Mystery Science Theater voice over of this movie happening in my head. To say that it is gloriously absurd really only captures the tip of the ice berg.
To say that Austin is a horny teenager is also an understatement. This is a little bit about how Austin operates: The phone rang. It made me horny. Look there’s my girlfriend Shann and my best friend Robby dancing. It made me horny. Look there is a giant bug eating the homeless man on the pubic lice couch. It made me horny. Austin is seriously horny. I think if you averaged it all out he must mention his balls, his penis, masturbating, being horny, or having sex at least once on every page. I didn’t actually do the math, so don’t quote me on this. Suffice it to say, the dude takes horny teenage boy to new levels. It is both seriously uncomfortable to read sometimes, and yet it is also sometimes grotesquely accurate. Here’s the thing, Austin is equally repelling and compelling. And he hands down has a consistent and authentically developed voice.
Hence the conflicted part. I can tell you right now a long list of teenagers I have worked with in my years as a librarian who would love this book. I can also tell you that parents everywhere will be having heart attacks about this book. I don’t know that I would feel comfortable taking this book and handing it to a teenager and saying, “you should read this book.” It’s a combination of cowardice and self-preservation. I wouldn’t ban it, because I don’t do that, but I also wouldn’t be chucking it out like candy in the Christmas day parade for all to read. It definitely has a specific audience – and a very mature one.
In the end, I don’t actually know if I loved the book or seriously loathed it. I think Smith accomplished what he set out to do in spades and for the right audience, it will be the best thing since sliced bread. Others will scratch their head and go, “What the hell was that.” Or, to quote an often used phrase in the book, “Holy Shit.”
So here’s what totally worked . . .
Throughout the book, Austin tells you little bits and pieces of history. In the end, the pieces all are woven together in a way that demonstrate how it all was leading up to this cataclysmic event. At first it seems distracting, but then it all comes together. It’s kind of genius.
Austin’s voice. Austin is a very conflicted teen. He doesn’t know how he feels about himself sexually. In fact, he finds himself both attracted to his girl friend and his best friend, who is gay, and he doesn’t know what to think of all this. To say that he is confused is an understatement. Austin was a comeplling character, as is his sexual confusion, and I found him to be the reason I kept reading. He kind of goes into a different voice when he was recording the history parts which works for the history, but his voice is very snarky and teenage boy.
Yes the plot is absurd, completely and unabashedly. But it is also absurdly fun, especially if you happen to like a comedic look at a confused, horny teenager who suddenly finds himself trying to fight off giant preying mantis bugs that our devouring the human race. I happen to like that sort of thing so it worked for me.
Here’s what I had some issues with . . .
I think it is going to be marketed as YA, but I almost feel like it is an adult book (especially in content) that takes a farcical look at the teenage years. More Kurt Vonnegut and Catcher in the Rye than say Robert Cormier (who, by the way, actually appears a lot in this book in an interesting way).
Words I would use to describe this book: vulgar, absurd, grotesque, at times genius, repulsive, bawdy, completely over the top. But oddly enough, I mean those all in complementary ways. Again, if your goal is to write the most over the top look at a horny teenage boy on the verge of both the apocalypse and climax, this is your model.
Quotability rating: 3 out of 5. I highlighted several quotes that spoke to me in some way.
“All good book are about everything. Abbreviated.” – Grasshopper Jungle
So, I both loved and loathed this book (at times the sex talk was way over the top and just too much for me, but it was, in fact, part of Austin’s voice and it wouldn’t have worked as well without it). It is glorious in executing this story. Or, as they say throughout the book, “Holy Shit.” It is a 4 to 5 star book, for the right audience (and me). I can not emphasize enough for those that are concerned about these things and need to know: If it was a movie, it would be rated R for the language and sex.
This review refers to an electronic ARC I downloaded off of Edelweiss. Here is Publisher’s Weekly review.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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