Ah, the changes that come upon a man as he enters fatherhood. They are many, varied, and often slightly depressing. One of the more trivial of these is my changed perspective toward books in the Young Adult genre. It’s probably not surprising that I now read these books from the vantage of the father of the young protagonists. If a young character dies, I no longer think: ‘Dangggg, that was uncool!’ I think, “Damn… They had so much life ahead of them, and how horrible it must be for that kid’s family.” With this new, more thoughtful perspective, I was particularly wrenched when I recently read another YA book, ’We Were Liars.’ That ending haunted me. Whereas my callous fourteen-year-old self would have been like: “Wow, that was a gnarly way to end a book! Still, it could have used more boobies.”
I’m sure my fourteen-year-old self would have found parts of Grasshopper Jungle very gnarly indeed. It is steeped—dripping—with adolescent gnarliness. I dare you to find a book that spends more time on sperm, balls, or poop. You won’t be able to do it. This is one YA book that completely immerses you into the persona of it’s sixteen-year old narrator, who is extremely horny, confused, and way into over-sharing. The immersion is so complete, that I never shifted into ‘reading as a parent’ mode. I was right there as a peer for Austin’s wild ride. I also felt like I needed a shower when the ride was done.
Here is the gist of the book:
Austin is an Iowan teenager who thinks he may be bisexual. He’s beginning to realize that he’s in love/lust with his girlfriend and his best friend, Robbie. Austin is struggling to come to grips with his feelings when he and Robbie inadvertently unleash an infestation of mutated, man-sized insects that might bring about the end of the world. Yes, the book goes full-bore into the schlock atomic sci-fi of the 1950s. And I decided to give it a try because I’m a sucker for coming-of-age, apocalyptic books.
Grasshopper Jungle is clearly aiming to go over-the-top. At some points it’s a horror-show comedy. Sometimes, it’s a bawdy parody of American masculinity and the military-industrial complex. (And the agri-industrial complex, if that’s a thing.) Sometimes it’s even a generational tale of Polish immigrants (Austin’s ancestors) striving through tragedy to eke out a happy life for themselves in America. But the book bounces around a lot between all these things. It’s too punk-rock to focus on just one or two defined themes.
Perhaps my biggest complaint of the book is its distinctive voice. Austin is a narrator with OCD, meaning he repeats himself a lot. I get what the author is going for here. Austin considers himself a sort of historian, and reiteration can be a powerful tool for recording history (‘lest we forget’). Also, Austin’s meticulous, snarky repetitions take on a quality like recurring lyrics in a punk-rock song. But all of these semi-lyrical, jokey repetitions might have worked better in a shorter book. Grasshopper Jungle is 390 pages long, and its restatements and re-phrasings make the book a trudge to read in some parts.
Then the end of the book comes all-of-a-sudden, and we have no resolution to Austin’s bizarre love triangle. In fact, there really isn’t much actual romantic conflict in the book either, except for the questions swirling in Austin’s head.
My final analysis is that Grasshopper Jungle is all about bombast and hormones. It created a unique voice, and it makes for an enjoyable read (even if it could have been a bit shorter). Overall, I’m glad I read it, but I’m not sure I would recommend it.