All roads cross here.
Grasshopper Jungle is the story of how the world will end. If you’re thinking global warming, war, a giant asteroid, or nuclear holocaust then think again. As 16-year-old Austin Szerba reports, the apocalypse begins in a small town called Ealing, Iowa.
At first glance, Ealing is an ordinary place in the middle of nowhere sparsely populated by churchgoing lower-middle class Americans. But decades ago, Ealing hosted a cultural mecca of scientists, researchers, and entrepreneurs who worked at the town’s primary employer – Mckeon Industries. From genetically-modified produce to Pulse-O-Matic showerheads, Mckeon Industries manufactured and supplied a variety of products. But as Austin Szerba soon finds out, the company’s founder, Dr Grady McKeon, was involved in a dark set of experiments that included genetic mutation, human reproduction, and testicle-dissolving corn. Oh, and he also accidentally created a race of gigantic and deadly praying mantises.
Luckily, our narrator is a curious, sexually-confused, and enthusiastic teenage boy who is misfortunate enough to witness the beginning of the end of the world. Austin and his best friend Robby are highly susceptible to bullying. Maybe it’s because Robby is gay, maybe it’s because they like to smoke cigarettes and skateboard, or maybe it’s because bullies are assholes. Either way, one fateful day Robbie and Austin are beaten up by a group of bullies, which leads to a chain of events that concludes with a giant insect apocalypse.
Along the way, Austin offers a richly-layered and unique perspective on history, sexuality, friendship, family, heritage, and lust. Actually, there’s a lot of rumination on lust – particularly a lengthy exploration of why teenage boys are turned on by EVERYTHING including food, animals, and inanimate objects. But as a kid who is obsessed with history (including his own Polish heritage), Austin is awakened to a deep and worldly curiosity that is hilariously peppered with thoughts of boners, giant insects, sperm, and testicles. He’s 16! Of course that’s what he’s thinking about!
While Grasshopper Jungle is certainly bizarre, outrageous, and hyperbolic, it is perfectly in sync with the chaos of adolescence – where fear, vulnerability, desire, confusion and wanderlust all conspire against teenage boys in the form of a giant
raging boner deadly insect. It really is a perfectly hilarious metaphor for adolescent sexuality and the pubescent frame of mind, but some readers may find the frank discussions of sex and coarse language offensive – especially since the book is geared toward YA readers. But let’s be honest. Puberty is hell, and it’s probably worse for a sexually confused kid in Iowa who may or may not be responsible for the end of the world. But as Austin says:
Sometimes it is perfectly acceptable to decide not to decide, to remain confused and wide-eyed about the next thing that will pop up in the road you build.
Of all the aspects of childhood and adolescence that we suppress, this is one youthful sentiment that we should all fight like it’s the end of the world to preserve – to never lose wonder, remain open-minded, and always persevere. Sounds like a positive message for all ages to me.
By Andrew Smith