Set in the small, crumbling town of Ealing, Iowa, Grasshopper Jungle tells the story of Robby Brees and narrator Austin Szerba as they entertain the possibility of the end of the world. Austin is confused- he confesses himself to be in love with his girlfriend Shann Collins, but also in love with his handsome and charismatic best friend Robby. Naturally he is riddled with confusion, an almost preternatural 'horniness' and has no idea how to deal with his contradictory desires. He records his own personal history in a series of journals, complete with doodles and mantras.
The novel starts with Robby and Austin skating and smoking on an abandoned strip of tarmac behind the dilapidated mall. Beaten up by a gang of bullies from the other school for being "queer", they find themselves bleeding, shoeless and trouserless as their belongings are tossed up onto the roof of the second hand shop. Returning that night to retrieve them, Robby and Austin take the opportunity to explore the store and discover a whole host of weird stuff hidden away by Johnny McKeon, heir to his dead brother's odds and ends. There's a tube of 6ft giant cockroaches, a severed head floating in fluid, a two-headed boy in a jar and a tank of a weirdly gelatinous, glowing mold labelled Contained MI Plague Strain 412E. The now defunct McKeon industries obviously made some pretty dodgy stuff before the eldest McKeon brother died in a plane crash.
During Robby and Austin's exploration, their assailants break in looking for booze and steal the contained plague strain- scrambling back onto the roof and away into the night, they watch it break on the pavement outside. It mixes with the blood spilled by Robby earlier in the day. Austin doesn't recognise this event for what it is- the beginning of the end of the world and the birth of a new dominant species on Earth. The rest of the book sees the two protagonists trying to make sense of what they've seen, including a 6ft cockroach burst out of the body of a local vagrant. More confused than ever, they do some digging on McKeon industries and dig in for the end.
I absolutely loved this book- it's tense and shocking and even though the Giant Insect premise seems far fetched, it becomes believable quickly. The genetic experimentation of the 1970s seems plausible enough when the pieces start to come together and the characters start to realise what they're up against. As we learn more about the plague and the increasingly mad scientist, we learn more about Austin's Polish background. From the beginning he slips in pieces of his family history, his great-grandfather and grandfather's traumatic passage to America...but as he and Robby learn more about the history of the town and of the scientific research that went on there, Austin sees more and more connections to his family that confirm what he's always thought. The whole of history is converging on him.
Austin is an engaging narrator- his confusion, anger and desperation come across easily, but so does his undeniable and intense love for his two best friends. He might not always think things through, but he's kind of a prisoner of his own inner conflict. I loved his musings about the nature of history, how historians have the ability to shape and alter it and how the human race seems doomed to repeat the same dumb mistakes forever. There's an appealing nihilistic streak to him, like he'll try his best to save the world, but if it doesn't work he can cope with it. I loved the bond between the two main characters too- Austen loves Robby, Robby is thoroughly in love with Austen...it was really tender and surprisingly un-awkward, considering how conflicted Austen is. I got the impression that whatever he would have decided sexuality wise (had he had enough of a world left in which to decide) Robby would've been happy for him.
This book had me actually snorting with laughter in several places- it's gross and bizarre but also ridiculously gripping. It's not really suitable for younger readers so I'd be surprised to see it make the Shortlist, but it was thoroughly enjoyable and definitely memorable. I would love to see a sequel where we get to see what life is like for the survivors living underground in the bunkers...