Something ‘that scares me’…

Republished into its original place in my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

One of the few remaining squares on my summer(!) book bingo card has been crossed off with this novel. I find few ghost stories truly scary and own few horror novels of the type that would scare me. However, big creepy crawlies do make me squirm when confronted by them without glass in between us – at school we have several visits a year from various  bods with their boxes of huge beetles, stick insects and tarantulas – I keep resolutely behind the camera lens – those critters aren’t going to get on me!  So, come the day that we’re all forced to dine on insect protein, I will starve! The idea of the rise of insects is scary enough – but the thought that those insects could be dominated by six feet praying mantises which hatch from human hosts scares me sh*tless! This is what happens in this absolutely brilliant YA novel:

Robby Brees and I made the road the Ealing Mall is built on.
Before we outgrew our devotion to BMX bicycles, the constant back and forth ruts we cut through the field we named Grasshopper Jungle became the natural sweep of Kimber Drive, as though the dirt graders and street engineers who paved it couldn’t help but follow the tracks Robby and I had laid.
Robby and I were the gods of concrete rivers, …

Meet Austin Szerba, of Polish descent, and his best friend Robby Brees. Robby is gay, Austin has a girlfriend, Shann, but he loves Robby too. He’s your typical confused teenager.

They attend Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy and the boys from the public school, Herbert Hoover High, always bully them and slag them off. During the opening sections, Austin and Robby have an encounter with the bullies and Robby ends up with a dripping, bloody nose.  He starts to spell out a message on the tarmac in drips of blood – GRANT WALLACH MURDERED ME, but only gets as far as the Wa.

Austin works for Shann’s Dad at the weekends; he runs a used goods warehouse where there is a locked room in which Mr McKeon keeps his treasures that are not for sale. Many came from the labs his late brother ran before he died. There are pickled mutant animals in jars, a preserved human head, in other words – a ‘real life horror show.’ There are also sealed glass globes that pulsate with light and particles – one is labelled ‘McKeon Industries 1969 Contained MI Plague Strain 412E’.

One night Austin and Robby sneak in through the skylight to take a look – but sadly this coincides with the Herbert Hoover bullies deciding to break in, in search of booze and cigarettes. Austin and Robby hide and will escape. However, one of the bullies will take the globe and drop it on the tarmac outside near the bins where a tramp often lurked:

The Contained MI Plague Strain 412E said hello to Robby Bree’s blood on the asphalt in Grasshopper Jungle.

And the end of the world began at about 2.00 a.m., around three and a half feet away from a discarded floral print sleeper sofa infested with pubic lice in Ealing, Iowa. One time, Travis Pope unfolded the sofa and fucked his wife, Eileen, on it. (p72)

The blood will activate the bugs who will infest the seven people who accidentally come into contact with it. They will hatch out of these bodies into six-foot-tall praying mantises that only want to do two things – mate and eat. Yuck!

Remind you of anything?

The blurb tells us about the giant insects as does the opening paragraph and, for once, knowing vaguely what’s to come raises the reader’s level of anticipation hugely and thus the macabre enjoyment from the horrific circumstances that have come about. Will anyone get out alive? Will it be the end of mankind? Will insects really rule the world? I’m not telling!

Yes, I know that in the real world those globes would have been safely destroyed (fingers crossed); they would not have been allowed to be inherited and stored in a simply locked office. A suspension of belief is required – but that was simple to do. This was because Austin and Robby were such brilliant characters and so easy to love.

Underneath the crazy horror story is the coming of age one, of Austin searching for his identity. Whether he’s straight or gay he’s not quite so certain, not being sure whether his love for Robby is fraternal or not. As a lad on the cusp of manhood, he is obsessed by sex and has a strong urge to lose his virginity one way or another soon! In between, he tells us how his Polish grandfather arrived in New York and how he worked to fit into his new world and how proud Austin is of his heritage, that’s one thing he’s not confused about.

Austin is delightfully forthright in his narration, feeling compelled to set down all the relevant facts for the record, making connections between them. He is a young man that strives to understand the big picture and where everyone fits in history. He’s a little geeky, a reader and diary-writer, whereas Robby is simply the best friend you could ever wish for. They were such good company. This being their story, their immediate families don’t feature much, but Austin gives us the bare details – for the record:

I had a brother named Eric.
Eric was in Afghanistan, shooting at people and shit like that. …

Both our moms took little blue pills to make them feel not so anxious. My mom took them because of Eric, and Robby’s mom needed pills because when we were in the seventh grade, Robby’s dad left and didn’t come back. My dad was a history teacher at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy, and my mom was a bookkeeper at the Hy-Vee, so we had a house and a dog, and shit like that. (p19)

This novel was entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure and told with great verve. Smith’s imagination runs riot but can go from gross-out to comedy to poignancy without faltering, making Grasshopper Jungle perfect for fans of Charlie Higson’s wonderful zombie novels for younger teens to graduate to. As an adult I adored it too. It has enough darkness and complexity to make a rewarding read for anyone from mid-teens upwards.  Grasshopper Jungle was actually Smith’s seventh novel, but the first to be published in the UK in 2014; I’ve ordered his latest from earlier this year The Alex Crow – can’t wait!  (10/10)

Source: Own Copy.

Andrew Smith, Grasshopper Jungle. Electric Monkey (Egmont teens) 2014, paperback, 400 pages.

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