Book review

'Grasshopper Jungle' turns history on its head

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“I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history. We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future. But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber [stuff] .

“This is my history. There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza and cruelty. Just like it’s always been.”

So opens possibly the craziest book you may have ever read, Andrew Smith’s “Grasshopper Jungle” (Dutton Books, $18.99, ages 16-18.) There truly is no better way to introduce this story than to get out of the character’s way and unleash his voice.

Mr. Smith combines a kind of magical realism with the appeal of narrative nonfiction. He also injects what can only be his own twisted soul into this story of science, evil geniuses, man-eating bugs and eternal libidinousness.

Austin Szerba is the 10th-grade historian of Ealing, Iowa. He records his life, the lives of his neighbors and the town in tall stacks of journals. His best friend, Robby Brees, is a funny, handsome gay classmate.

And that is part of the story that Austin fills his journal with. If Austin loves Robby and is attracted to him, does that mean he is gay? Even though Shann, his girlfriend since seventh grade, drives him to extremes of lustful fantasy at every second?

Working in an antique shop called From Attic to Seller makes sense for a budding historian. One night, Austin and Robby decide to investigate the back room.

It is not a good idea. A baby with two heads waves vaguely inside a globe. Glow-in-the dark pulsating goo lights the dark.

Most horrifically, in a large glass case, labeled “McKeon Industries 1969-Unstoppable Soldier-Strand 4-VG-12” float grasshoppers “as big as middle-school kids.”

At the same moment that Robby and Austin stand slack-jawed and horrified in front of these things, a group of neighborhood bullies break in to rob the store.

They smash one of the globes in the parking lot. And that is REALLY not a good idea.

Repeating phrases like “It was not a good idea,” “real dynamo,” “And that was our day. You know what I mean,” become a lexicon of double-entendre in this hilarious, lewd, beautifully written book.

The narrative voice is so authentically a 16-year old boy’s that obsessions with sex, swearing, excrement and body parts in one’s nether regions feel natural. Like so many great books, it is studded with sentences that need to be read out loud over and over to be fully appreciated. That is, if you can say them with a straight face.

A dark, dark humor lights this book up like the gelatinous goo in a dark room. Consider this:

“Robby and I were the gods of concrete rivers, and history does prove to us that wherever boys ride bicycles, paved roadways ribbon along afterward like intestinal tapeworms. So the mall went up — built like a row of happy lower teeth — grinned for a while, and then about a year ago some of the shops there began shutting down, blackening out like cavities when people left our town for other, better places.”

Passages like this build a world we might recognize or, if not, that we understand. Mr. Smith writes with a poetry that celebrates and clarifies how a teenager might see a crumbling town filled with crumbling people.

But routine crumbling has not yet begun. When the smashed globe unleashes Unstoppable Soldiers — that is, bullet-proof six-foot-tall grasshoppers, voraciously hungry and profoundly ready to reproduce — the inhuman soldiers begin noshing on townspeople.

That’s when Robby, Shann and Austin find Eden, a generously appointed time capsule from the 1960s. Created by the evil genius responsible for the mysteries of the back room of Attic to Seller, it is meant to house New Humans after an apocalypse.

What an interesting situation for a teenage historian! What a complexity of past, present and future!

Austin’s mind is a stew of Polish history, his family’s lineage, his dog Ingrid, his lust and love for both his best friend and his girlfriend, cigarettes, prehistoric paintings, Saint Kazimierz, and his mother’s tranquilizers.

As chaos grips Ealing, Robby, Shann and Austin must build their own history, their own definitions of themselves, and a future previously unimagined. Austin ends his narrative having learned a profound truth about the nature of historians and history itself.

Brave-hearted souls undisturbed by mature themes and with a taste for the humorously gruesome will enjoy this book immensely.

Sheila May-Stein is children’s and teen librarian at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Hill District.

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