In his acknowledgements at the back of the book, Andrew Smith states that he began writing Grasshopper Jungle as though no one would ever read it. He had decided to give up publishing his work, until he was convinced halfway through the novel that this one should see the light of day as well.
Smith has created another fun, fascinating read, but one that lacks a distinctive audience. Jungle is too old for most YA readers, and too young for most adult readers. The true audience for this novel falls somewhere in between. Even though I did enjoy the book, I would find it hard to recommend to any of my students, even the high school ones, because of the language and some of the material in the novel. And I will pretty much recommend anything to students. Sex, violence, swearing. It’s all fine. But endless discussion about sperm, a fair amount of sex (both human and insect), frequent discussion about erections, and a goodly amount of swearing, makes this one a tough sell for me to give to a teenager (not because they can’t handle the material, but because I don’t want to field the parent phone call about the book I gave their kid). At times I found myself wishing that he would have dropped some of the language and edited parts of the sexual discussions, because it was a fun read that I could have seen myself giving to several people. Or, going in the opposite direction and making it purely a book for adults. That way, he could have gone all out and not censored any of his ideas.
Grasshopper Jungle is basically about two friends living in a boring Iowa town. They skateboard and smoke cigarettes. Austin and Robby have been friends since forever. Robby is gay, and in love with Austin. Austin is not sure what he is, as he is in love with his girlfriend, Shann, and Robby as well. He is confused, as he states time and time again throughout the novel. Eventually, the end of the world comes to town, in the form of large, man-sized, praying mantises that only like to do two things: eat and breed. The friends must figure out the mystery of the events leading up to the infestation, how to try and defeat it, and how to survive it together.
I found this novel difficult to get into. I liked the story just fine, but it was the way it was written that was a bit of a struggle for me. The repetitive style that Smith writes in worked wonderfully well in Winger, but often became irritating in Jungle. It seemed like everything was going around in circles for the first 150 pages. But, when things get going, they really get going in the novel. Once the infestation begins, the novel is a fun, action-packed book that is pretty hard to put down. Once the gang of Shann, Austin, and Robby find Eden, it becomes very interesting, and the whole purpose of the novel falls into place.
Austin is obsessed with history, and spends hours each day writing and drawing the history of his own lives. As the novel progresses, we see how everyone is connected through their history, and this is the brilliance of an Andrew Smith novel. While it is about giant insects eating all the people of a town, it is also about those connections, and what keeps us together and tears us apart. The relationships developed over the course of the novel are strong, and we get to feel the plight that each of the characters are going through. We understand Shann’s anger, as the boy she loves may possibly be gay, and may be in love with his best friend. We understand that Austin is confused, and he is trying his best to deal with his sexual urges, his feelings for the people closest to him, and his place in the small world they have created for themselves.
Despite not adoring the style in which the novel was written, Smith gets the job done. The frustrating repetition of the start of the novel slowly fades away, and when it is used during the second half, it tends to serve a more understandable purpose.
The novel ends satisfyingly as well, which is rare with books that could be deemed as being YA. I will assume that this will not be the beginning of a series, as Smith is not traditionally a series writer. Because of this, the ending is something that readers can be very pleased with, as we are given a conclusion that satisfies the story created.
While Grasshopper Jungle is not as laugh-out-loud funny as Winger, it has a distinct cleverness to it that is often hard to resist. As Austin goes through his life, recording their history as they live it, we are drawn into the strange world of Ealing, Iowa, the unique lives of the people that live within it, and the way that we are all connected through the stories of our past.