In GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE, Andrew Smith utilizes science fiction and horror to comment on questions of real-life teenage sexuality.
There’s not much happening in Ealing, Iowa, especially since the closure of McKeon Industries years earlier. These days, the most happening place in town is the strip mall with the secondhand store, the Laundromat, the liquor store and the pizza place --- and that’s not saying much. Austin Szerba and his best friend Robby ride their skateboards there, in a deserted strip of land they call Grasshopper Jungle, and that’s where the story --- or at least their chapter of the story --- begins.
After breaking into the secondhand store (just for fun), which is owned by Austin’s girlfriend Shann’s stepfather, the best friends encounter some truly strange, even terrifying, creatures kept in jars. Austin and Robby know better than to disturb the objects, but that’s not the case for the bullies who follow them in and set off a series of events that, much to everyone’s surprise, leads to the end of the world.
One of the containers holds a throbbing mass of photoluminescent goop labeled “Contained MI Plague Strain 412E.” When the bullies steal and accidentally drop the container, the plague is no longer contained. Instead, it invades the bodies of the bullies (and a few random strangers) and turns them into enormous, horny, bloodthirsty praying mantises. Austin and Robby (and eventually Shann) are the only people who know what’s going on --- but can they stop the massive bug invasion before it’s too late?
Readers may pick up GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE for its breakneck apocalyptic sci-fi plot, but they’ll also find a surprisingly insightful look at teenage sexuality, sexual identity and the ability of small towns to both stifle and sustain.
This kind of drama is obviously a pretty big deal, seeing as it affects the very future (or lack thereof) of humanity. But to Austin Szerba, it is pretty much on par with the daily drama that plagues him --- he’s constantly sexually aroused, but he’s not sure who attracts him more, Shann or Robby. Robby, who is gay, is obviously in love with Austin, and sometimes Austin feels the same way. But he also knows that he desperately wants to have sex with Shann.
Smith effectively uses the sci-fi/horror plot as a parallel to Austin’s situation and the violence and hopelessness that has already populated Ealing. At the novel’s opening, Austin and Robby are the victims of a gay-bashing attack, both their mothers are addicted to Xanax, one of their teachers cooks methamphetamine and their Lutheran school principal --- who quite publicly denounces premarital sex and masturbation --- secretly cruises the single gay bar in a nearby town.
Austin is very interested in history, in how it is told and why. His (often hilarious) account of his own role in history is interspersed with tales of his family’s history over generations. Only gradually do we discover that the seemingly unrelated story of a Polish immigrant family actually intersects in key ways with the equally convoluted history of MI Plague Strain 412E. The fragmented narrative, moving back and forth between family folklore and current absurdities, will remind many readers of Kurt Vonnegut or of (an R-rated version of) Louis Sachar’s HOLES. Readers may pick up GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE for its breakneck apocalyptic sci-fi plot, but they’ll also find a surprisingly insightful look at teenage sexuality, sexual identity and the ability of small towns to both stifle and sustain.