How Monsters Eat the Town of Ealing, Iowa
Grasshopper Jungle is a teen fiction book with sex, drugs, rock’n’roll-- and giant praying mantises.
For the last few weeks I have been reviewing very serious books. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith is not one of them. To be accurate, the monsters in this funny and apocalyptic young adult sci-fi are not grasshoppers, but giant praying mantises. This novel makes fun of Iowa, Lutheran youth, and dystopian teen fiction, not necessarily in that order. It may gross you out, but it will never bore you.
Grasshopper Jungle is the kind of break-out work of fiction that deserves a wide readership. It is laugh-out-loud hilarious and scary enough that it gave me nightmares. (Seriously.) Those qualities are usually hard to find in one book. But before you buy copies for your children or nephews and nieces, let’s talk a little about today’s YA novels. This burgeoning publishing field is much more than Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. If you know the novels of John Green, you have some idea of what you’ll find in this book: unexpurgated teen conversations, sex (both fantasy and real), and gallows humor that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
If you have teens in your home, you will soon realize that the protagonists, Austin and his gay best friend Robby, talk like we know teenage boys talk when no adults are around. They are irreverent, obscene, and very funny. The adults around them, in ill-fated Ealing, Iowa, are buffoonish and self-obsessed. And, of course, the boys are our heroes.
What distinguishes Grasshopper Jungle from many of its peers is its breakneck pacing, thoughtful writing, and a mash-up of a plot that is worthy of a 1950’s “creature feature.” If you have ever watched any of those old monster movies, you will find many of their science fiction conventions turned on their heads. This book is witty, poignant, and self-reflexive.
The relationships among the boys and Austin’s girlfriend, Shann, ring true and have a sadness to them that I think most adolescents (and adults) will identify with. Austin is confused about his sexuality and frustrated with the adults who are of no help in sorting it out. Denizens of a reactionary Lutheran high school, the teens are disaffected and disillusioned by the hypocrisy around them.
All of that takes a back seat when the end of the world approaches. The plot strands that explain this apocalypse are complicated, but all too realistic. They are explicated by Austin, who intersperses his Polish family’s history with the fateful decisions that set the end in motion. All things are shown to interconnect in a way that provides a slam-bang conclusion. Excrementum sanctum, as Austin would say!
Hardened horror fans won’t be fazed by the mayhem is this book. If, however, you’re not used to descriptions of a giant praying mantis as it feeds on humans, you may want to give this a pass. Nor do I recommend that Grammy buy this for all the grandkids. This is not a book a teen would want to receive from grandmother. But it has everything most teens will enjoy in a read, plus sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Did I mention that everyone smokes a lot, too?
I think any aficionado of YA fiction will devour this like a giant praying mantis does a small Iowa town. Smith is a talented and accomplished novelist and I hope this gives him a much larger audience. And, something I seldom say, I hope they make a movie of this. I’ll be the one in the back watching the screen through my fingers.
Saturday, April 5 (11:00 AM): Milwaukee Public Library Event with Scott Jacobs, author of Famous Ski Hills in Wisconsin: (And Other Delusions of Grandeur). This will take place in the Mozart’s Grove Reading Area of the Milwaukee Public Library, 807 W. Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee. Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.
Sunday, April 6 (1:00 to 5:00 PM): “Milwaukee’s 8th Annual Edible Books Show” at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. $6-$8 admission. (414) 263-5001 email@example.com
Tuesday, April 8 (7:00 PM): Reading by Heid Erdrich at Woodland Pattern Book Center. $5-$8 admission.
Tuesday, April 8 (7:00 PM): Peter Stark, author of Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181 boswell.indiebound.com/
Tuesday, April 8 (7:00 PM): Lesbian Reading Group @ Outwords Books. Everyone is invited to join the discussion of Wingspan, a Karis Walsh romance at Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee, 2710 N. Murray Avenue, Milwaukee. Call (414) 963-9089. http://www.outwordsbooks.com/
Wednesday, April 9 (6:30 PM): Book Club – The Round House by Louise Erdrich at The Little Read Book, 7603 W. State St., Wauwatosa. (414) 774-2665 http://littlereadbook.com/index.html
Thursday, April 10 (7:00 PM): Matthew Algeo, author of Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport, in conversation with WUWM’s and Lake Effect’s Mitch Teich at Boswell Book Company.
Friday, April 11 (7:00 PM): Patrick O’Keeffe, author of The Visitors, in conversation with UWM’s Valerie Laken at Boswell Book Company. This event is co-sponsored by the UWM Department of English Creative Writing Program.
Friday, April 11 (7:00 PM): Reading by Juliana Spahr at Woodland Pattern Book Center. $5-$8 admission.
Saturday, April 12 (4:00PM): JD Glass, author of Glass Lion at Outwords Books, Gifts & Coffee.
Saturday, April 12 (7:00PM): “Milwaukee Poets Laureate Reading Series”: Jim Chapson and guest poet, Lewis Ellingham at Woodland Pattern Book Center. $5-$8 admission.