Just how Peculiar is Andrew Smith’s latest novel, Grasshopper Jungle? A sample passage: ”Travis carried Will Wallace, who thrashed and kicked uselessly, into The Pancake House. Travis Pope smeared Will Wallace’s hair through a puddle of imitation-maple-flavored syrup. Then Travis ate him like a piece of French toast.” Did we forget to mention that Travis Pope is a six-foot-tall praying-mantis supersoldier who wants only to eat and have sex? But don’t let the weird and the wild deter you from this terrific postapocalyptic coming-of-age tale.
Our protagonist, 16-year-old Austin Szerba, is utterly obsessed with keeping a journal. ”I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history,” he says. ”We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future.” Austin’s ”stupid thing”? He unwittingly helped unleash a plague that turns humans into massive insects bent on annihilation. And as if facing the end of the world weren’t enough, Austin is also in love with two people: his girlfriend, Shann Collins, and his best friend, Robby Brees (with whom he names the BMX ruts they carved through the town as kids ”Grasshopper Jungle” — which is where much of the early action takes place). What’s a boy to do?
At its heart, the novel is a tale of small-town teenage friendship, though Smith handles Austin and Robby with much more color and quirky flair than poor bland Shann, who hardly develops beyond the pupa stage. He’s at his best when exploring the agonies of Austin’s adolescence and weaving in the fantastically detailed stories of self-discovery from some of the boy’s ancestors. That means Grasshopper Jungle reads more like an absurdist Middlesex than The Maze Runner — and is all the better for it. A-