Grasshopper Jungle is everything Michael Grant says it is, which might sound like a pretty tough thing to achieve, yet Andrew Smith does this without seeming to break into a sweat. Our protagonist Austin, however, probably sweats quite a lot. What with the unleashing of the end of the world and the running for his life, not to mention the heartache of being in love with two people at once.
It all begins in the small American town of Ealing, Iowa. One question is whether it began fifty years ago, or whether it began four days ago. Either way, an army of six foot tall praying mantises have been accidentally unleashed into the town. Right now, though, nobody really knows anything about it. But the grasshoppers don't care; they only want to do two things: they’re hungry and they’re horny. Which is, when you think about it, maybe kinda like the average teenage boy?
Grasshopper Jungle is not so much an apocalypse book as a coming-of-age story, because it’s Austin’s story - his and Robby’s and Shann’s – so even while the shit is hitting the fan around them, Austin is still, you know, a person. With personal stuff going on. More precisely, he’s wondering how he can be in love with both Robby and Shann at the same time. He doesn’t want to hurt either of them, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is an unstoppable dynamo of a horny sixteen year old boy, slave to his instincts, and this makes him selfish. So it’s kind of inevitable that he’ll hurt someone, and probably himself too, as he tries to figure it all out. Oh, and try to save the world.
I spent about 90% of the book debating how literally I should take Austin’s account of “the end of the world”. Is it really the end of the world as in The End Of The World, or is it (a) just the end of the world in Ealing, Iowa, (b) what could have been the beginning of the end of the world but fortunately turns out not to be, or (c) maybe simply, given his heartache, just the end of Austin’s world? In many ways Austin’s account of what could be the more terrifying aspects of this story are almost blasé and almost (almost) so taken-for-granted that it’s difficult to divine how serious it all is. Is this because by the time he comes to write this account, he’s pretty much inured to the whole thing? Or because, at the time it’s all happening, it’s overshadowed by the bigger question in his life: how can he be in love with two people? Plus, you know, giant grasshoppers.
Is Austin to blame? The Hoover boys? Dr. Grady McKeon? The world’s need for unstoppable corn? Told not as a diary, but as a personal historical account, Austin likes details and he likes connections, and his history includes both of these, linking together what could be considered unrelated events into a big spider’s web of a retelling. Ultimately, of course, all the connections become clear, but can there be a happy ending. What, after all, is a happy ending? It’s immense and tiny, intense and careful, pacey and thoughtful, funny and sad, and it’s impossible not to root for Austin to get everything he wants, even when all of those things are seemingly contradictory to one another.
I loved every part of this book, from Austin’s complete confusion over his two best friends to the frankly rather bizarre apocalypse he’s caught up in the middle of, the brilliant antics of these three kids in their small hometown and the eclectic way that Smith/Austin goes about writing the story, sliding from personal account to family history to multiple viewpoints as the praying mantises take over. I want to tell you it’s one of the most interesting and unusual novels I’ve ever read. I want to tell you it’s genre busting, and gender busting too. I want to tell you it will appeal to fans of John Green, Patrick Ness, Michael Grant, Suzanne Collins, Stephen King. Mostly, though, I just want to tell you it’s so completely brilliant you have to read it for yourself.