Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith (Penguin Young Readers-Feb. 11th, 2014)-16 year old Austin Szerba lives in Ealing, Iowa, where nothing ever happens. Days are spent behind a thrift store owned by his girlfriend, Shann’s, stepfather, Johnny McKeon, by a field that’s been nicknamed the Grasshopper Jungle. Austin spends this time with his best friend Robby Brees, who he’s grown up with and who he loves. Austin may even love Robby as more than a friend, and he knows he’s in love with Shann. Robby most certainly is in love with Austin. It’s complicated. One day, a group of boys beat up Austin and Robby, drawing blood, and strangely enough, it’s Robby’s blood on the pavement that kicks off some very strange and frightening events. You see, Grady McKeon was a scientist (and Johnny McKeon’s much older brother), who made a ton of money from defense programs during the Cold War. When the factory closed down and began manufacturing shower heads and toothbrushes, Johnny McKeon inherited a bunch of his brother’s stuff from the old lab. A bunch of very, very strange stuff that he keeps locked in his office. When some of those items are stolen from his office, one of them comes in contact with the Robby’s blood and all hell breaks loose.
Ok, so maybe Grady McKeon was working on some nasty stuff at that lab of his, and that nastiness is now on the loose in Ealing in the form of six feet tall praying mantis like creatures that are technically called Unstoppable Soldiers (this we learn later.) These creatures like to do two things: procreate and eat. They eat people. You can see how this would be a problem. Robby and Austin may be the world’s only hope, if there is any left, but first they’ve got to get to the bottom of things. Austin fancies himself an historian, and keeps notebooks on just about everything that happens to him. He serves as a somewhat omniscient narrator in Grasshopper Jungle and frequently goes off on tangents about the town’s history and its people’s history as well as his own. Austin is wildly confused about his sexuality, and with no one to confide in, it becomes an almost unbearable distraction. At his core, though, Austin has a huge heart, and his own teenage selfishness aside, is very worried about hurting the two people he loves the most. Andrew Smith manages a pretty thorough exploration of teen sexuality alongside the horror show that launches explosively in small town America (huge, hungry, and horny praying mantis creatures!!!), and I was a little reminded of King during some of the more horrific bits. Smith has his own distinct style and voice, though, and black humor abounds. So do boners, masturbatory impulses, and Austin’s almost constant thoughts of threesomes with Shann and Robby (just about every scenario offers an opportunity.) Underneath the crassness is a heart of pure gold, however, and there are some moments that are achingly tender and even heartbreaking. I’m such a huge fan of Andrew Smith’s work, and this gross, terrifying, sometimes hilarious, glorious creation had me hooked from page one. Don’t expect a pretty bow at the end, but do expect to possibly lose sleep and find yourself grinning at the strangest times.