Monday, October 16, 2017
Book Review: "Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe" by Preston Norton
Since his older brother died, Cliff Hubbard has been alone. He has no friends in high school, but he can't sneak through undetected, since he's 6'6" and weighs 250 pounds. He couldn't be any more noticeable; his classmates have bestowed upon him the nickname "Neanderthal." They ridicule him and mock his size, his appetite, his appearance, his loneliness.
But things are, perhaps, worse in his trailer-park home. His unemployed father, usually drunk, sits around and broods and takes out his frustration on Cliff, as he also used to do with Shane. Sometimes that frustration is expressed through verbal abuse, but more often than not it's manifested through physical violence. Cliff's mother, who works herself to the bone so they don't get evicted, sees what her husband has done to her sons, but she mostly keeps quiet, which angered both Shane and Cliff.
While there are a lot of people in school Cliff doesn't like, it's golden-boy quarterback Aaron Zimmerman he hates the most. Aaron coasts through life, driving his classic sports car, having every girl in school throw themselves at him, while he and his friends ridicule those they feel are beneath them. Even the teachers give Aaron a pass.
And then one day Aaron returns to school after being in a coma following an accident. He says he had a near-death experience, during which he spoke to God, who gave him a mission: make Happy Valley High School suck less. This mission has five components that will ensure success and God tells Aaron the one person that can help him is Neanderthal. As crazy as the whole thing sounds, Cliff eventually agrees to help Aaron, both because he wants to make school suck less perhaps more than anyone (except God), and for the first time, he has a friend, a purpose.
The mission isn't an easy one: they need to set the school's meanest bully on a different path, help a gang of drug dealers realize the error of their ways, help an angry English teacher recapture his passion for teaching, deal with the school's most vindictive club, the Jesus Teens, and stop a hacker who seems to know everything that is going on. Nearly everyone thinks they're crazy, but they're more than happy to sit back and watch them fail, because it's not easy to fix a school that's so badly broken.
The deeper Cliff wades into Aaron's mission (or is it God's?), the more he starts to come into himself, and the more he realizes how little he actually knew about his brother. And while fixing what is broken in school, as in the rest of his life, isn't easy, for the first time he realizes he is more than what people say about him.
Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe is a mash-up of a lot of elements prevalent in YA fiction these days, but Preston Norton puts his own twist on things. Cliff is such a memorable charactermy heart just hurt for him at times, and I just wanted him to open up to people, because here's this smart, sensitive kid that everyone ridicules because of how he looks. There are a lot of supporting characters, some of whom are really fascinating, and some which don't rise above typical teen clichés.
There's a lot going on in this book, and at times I wish that Norton had concentrated the plot on one or two threads rather than multiple ones. I loved the way he pulled everything together, however, and I'll admit I was even surprised at one point with a twist he threw in. Some of the dialogue definitely rivals John Green's, but I think there's a lot more subtle (and not-so-subtle) sensitivity at play here, too. And, yeah, it choked me up, too. Damned book.
I've been reading a good amount of YA in recent years and I'm always blown away by the talent and the quality of writing that is out there. I wish not every book set in high school dealt with bullying (which seems to get crueler and crueler with every book) and teachers and administrators who let it go on unabated, if not encourage it. Believe me, I know bullying exists and the reality is, it is getting crueler, especially with the anonymity of the internet, but sometimes these books hit a little too close to home for me, even years and years after high school.
Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe really has a lot of charm and a lot of heart. Cliff is a special character I won't stop thinking about for a while, and I look forward to seeing what's next from Preston Norton.
NetGalley and Disney-Hyperion provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!