2 AM, the red exit sign glows in the corner as we sit on the yellow, rubber floor of the school building. The middle school principal and high school placement director are huddled in their sleeping bags, half paying attention to my reading interspersed with practicing dance combinations. Only two hours ago, half the boys in our class were standing, shirts off, in the doorway of the math classroom. And an hour before that, we sat in the lunchroom eating cold pizza while watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But here we are now, the four of us who don’t feel comfortable in the classrooms full of cis boys and girls, reading a book with a curse word every two words to the people writing us high school recommendation letters. Sounds surreal? Not as surreal as the plot of Neanderthal Opens The Door To The Universe by Preston Norton.
The plot as a whole is pretty simple, a football player named Aaron falls into a coma and gets a List (hereafter referred to as The List) of things to do from God to make his high school a slightly less terrible place and enlists a social outcast named Cliff (nicknamed Neanderthal due to the size of his body) to help complete The List. The first time I picked up this book I was surprised by how odd the plot was, sort of magical realism/bible fanfic (turns out most of the characters are atheists) and even after reading the book, I’m still very confused how anyone could come up with a plot so stereotypical and unusual at the same time.
My feelings around this book are quite mixed, hence the four stars. On one hand, the characters are fairly stereotypical; Cliff talks about food all the time as a comedic relief, Esther is just pure evil, Aaron is an arrogant football star who is on a journey to become a better person, and so on. The only character that I found interesting was Noah, the small town’s only out gay kid who was thoughtful in a real way and defied stereotypes (i.e he was not super flamboyant and had an interesting relationship to religion). On the other hand, Norton's humor was spot on as any teen would understand. Nortan’s passion for sci-fi also took the spotlight in this story with Cliff’s constant analogies and allusions to canonical sci-fi movies and literature.
Plot-wise, the book felt forced and almost too coincidental and too perfect in the way each piece of the story fits into each other. Each piece of the list relates to a part of high school life; bullying, annoying teachers, heartbreak, drugs. The book also covers more topics such as suicide, alcoholism, abusive parents, religion, and more which are not often covered in depth in YA literature. I am glad that Norton included these themes because teenagers are becoming exposed to these topics at increasingly young ages and it’s a nice change to not just have perfect small town life or future dystopian worlds be the setting and context for what we read. This being said, some of the exploration of these topics felt rushed as if the whole point of writing that scene was to teach a lesson about the outcome.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised that I liked it. I had fun reading it and laughed a lot (the majority of the books I read don’t involve much laughing. The middle felt a little repetitive but I would still recommend it to lovers of dark humor, sarcasm, sci-fi references, and magical realism who still want some interesting content.
Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe by Preston Norton. Disney-Hyperion, 2018. Buy the book here and support Stone Soup in the process!
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