It’s not uncommon for stories featuring adolescents as the main characters to juxtapose their emotional turmoil with some over-the-top menace, be it supernatural, alien, or otherwise. What makes Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle such an exciting read is how it pushes the literal end of the world—due to 6-foot-tall praying mantises, no less—far off to the side in favor of its protagonist’s conflicted emotions.
Austin Szerba is a good kid, but he’s also trapped in the middle of a love triangle he can’t sort out without devastating somebody very close to him. On the one side is his longtime girlfriend, Shann Collins, who’s started hinting to Austin that it might be time for them to have sex. On the other is his best friend, Robby Brees, a preternaturally confident gay teen Austin finds himself attracted to as well. Grasshopper Jungle is somewhat about Austin’s attempts to define whatever his sexuality might be, but the word “bisexual” is said only once, very late in the book. Instead, the book focuses far more on how Austin can never make both of the people he loves happy, not even if they’re the last people on Earth. That “last people on Earth” scenario might very well turn out to be the case, too, if the three can’t find a way to shut down the swarm that threatens to devour their dilapidated Iowa town.
Grasshopper Jungle’s greatest strength also ends up being the book’s core weakness. Smith tells the story from Austin’s point of view, and the boy’s thoughts are occasionally profound but are mostly focused on the sorts of things teenage boys get fixated on—sex and food and pushing boundaries, parental and otherwise. Yet Austin’s also a kid who fancies himself a historian, and the Austin of a few years later who’s actually telling the story is able to pull back and take a longer view of things that might not be readily obvious to his younger counterpart. From one perspective, Robby and Austin set in motion the events that led to the giant bugs coming to be; from another, all of human history had been leading to that point, like it or not. Austin pulls in this notion of history as an abstract force, changing everyone from a human being with free will into just another character in a story. The narrative voice can get awfully repetitive, especially in the climactic showdowns, but there’s also a point to that repetition. Austin—and by extension Smith—is obsessed with the kinds of things it’s all too easy to become obsessed by until life comes along and blindsides you.
Fortunately, the book is easy to stick with, even in the more repetitive sections. For one thing, Smith has a wonderful eye for setting. The decaying town of Ealing, Iowa, is depicted occasionally with a bit too much condescension toward its inhabitants, but Smith is usually careful to make clear that it’s condescension Austin—a teenage kid stuck in a small town with nowhere else to go—is feeling and not necessarily that of the author. Similarly, a well-stocked end-of-the-world bunker the central trio stumbles upon around the novel’s halfway point becomes a kind of pause in real life, a place where Austin just might figure his shit out until real life intrudes on that space too.
Smith’s decision to keep the giant bugs on the sidelines until the end (though narrator Austin is always checking in on whatever they’re up to at the moment) pays similar dividends. It might seem curious at first in a novel about the world’s end, but by the time the stakes are as high as they can possibly get, readers know Austin, Robby, and Shann well enough to care not just about their life and death but about how they’ll handle their love triangle should all three make it out alive. And when the time comes for the kids to do battle with the giant bugs, Smith handles that well, too, with action sequences that are taut and never over-written.
Smith has a lot on his mind with Grasshopper Jungle, from the aforementioned grand tapestries of history to teenage sexual confusion to ideas of military investments in technology derailing otherwise sound science into horrifying ends to the hypocrisy of anyone attempting to tell someone else how to live a life that’s “proper.” Grasshopper Jungle, in many ways, is a book about how there might be a manual for defeating monsters that have invaded town, but there’s not going to be an easy manual for everything else that weighs on the mind. As surely as giant praying mantises are there to breed and eat, teenage boys in small towns are going to be confused when their urges don’t fit neatly into the usual boxes. In Grasshopper Jungle, Austin learns both how exciting and how terrifying it can be to build his own box, instead of living in one set aside for him.