Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe by Preston Norton | Review

Publisher: Hyperion
Release Date: May 22, 2018
Source of my copy: publisher
Series: None
My rating:

Cliff Hubbard is a huge loser. Literally. His nickname at Happy Valley High School is Neanderthal because he's so enormous—6'6" and 250 pounds to be exact. He has no one at school and life in his trailer park home has gone from bad to worse ever since his older brother's suicide.

There's no one Cliff hates more than the nauseatingly cool quarterback, Aaron Zimmerman. Then Aaron returns to school after a near-death experience with a bizarre claim: while he was unconscious he saw God, who gave him a list of things to do to make Happy Valley High suck less. And God said there's only one person who can help: Neanderthal.

To his own surprise, Cliff says he's in. As he and Aaron make their way through the List, which involves a vindictive English teacher, a mysterious computer hacker, a decidedly unchristian cult of Jesus Teens, the local drug dealers, and the meanest bully at HVHS--Cliff feels like he's part of something for the first time since losing his brother. But fixing a broken school isn't as simple as it seems, and just when Cliff thinks they've completed the List, he realizes their mission hits closer to home than he ever imagined.

I didn't expect to like Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe (Neanderthal) as much as I did. The wit, the sarcasm, the science fiction references, the pain and guilt of losing someone to suicide, the finding of new friends—all of these aspects made Neanderthal a humorous and compelling read.

The entire story was narrated by the main character, Clifford, a 6' 6" and 250-pound high schooler with no friends and three cynical rules to keep it that way. Or so was the impression he gave as he began. As I learned more about him—his brother who committed suicide, his abusive dad, the bullying he faces at school—Cliff's cynicism grew more and more into what it really was: a mask for how heartbroken and lonely he felt. In the end, Cliff was everything but stagnant: as his story progressed, his character grew and matured until who he was at the beginning was almost unrecognizable. He became an individual surrounded by people who loved him and he loved back and someone who had hope despite the pitiful odds he was given in life. For the majority of the story, he referred to himself as the sidekick in the escapade of the List, but he was ultimately the hero of the story. Not only because he was the narrator, but also because he was willing to endure a lot to see the story to the end. I applauded him.

Cliff was a sci-fi fanatic, so there were a lot of references to sci-fi books and movies throughout the story. Many of them were integrated into his hallmark humor while some of them were made by quoting or alluding to popular or classic references. I was impressed by the intertextuality, the depth it added to the story by foreshadowing events, adding to the mood, or iterating something wise. Young individuals who are avid consumers of sci-fi will highly appreciate it as it places the complex themes of this coming-of-age novel in a language that is both relatable and appealing. I am not a sci-fi fanatic, but this aspect of Neanderthal impressed and inspired me nonetheless.

I had a couple of issues with Neanderthal, however, particularly about the romance and the ending.

For the romance, it was rather forced and unnecessary. How Cliff and his love interest got together seemed too sudden as it happened early into the novel, about a hundred pages in, and Cliff wasn't even sure about his feelings, let alone the legitimacy of the List. If the two of them had decided to be friends first to get to know each other more before becoming boyfriend and girlfriend, the development of their relationship would have been more convincing while changing little to the plot. Even after finishing the novel, I was unconvinced.

The ending of the story was predictable. Usually I am bad at guessing what will happen next, but while reading Neanderthal and watching the last mystery of the story unfold, I predicted easily what was to happen. When the characters finally figured it out, I wanted to reach in and go, "Well, duh!" In hindsight, my reaction was probably just the result of having familiarity with similar plotlines, but I still felt no excitement during such an intense point in the story. I was hoping for more.

Despite these issues, I would highly recommend Neanderthal to young readers, especially high schoolers. Admittedly, there is a lot of profanity, which didn't bother me but more sensitive readers might take issue. It discusses prevalent topics, such as religion, sci-fi, and sexuality and it should be read by individuals who are still figuring out who they are and where they belong. The battle of answering these questions is oftentimes painful and rough and it is especially experienced among teenagers. Neanderthal brings to light that battle in a manner that is honest and impactful; to not read it is to miss out on the amount of self-reflection and self-acceptance it is bound to solicit and encourage. There are so many Cliffords out there wanting to be heard and to be comforted; may Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe be what they need and help them for the better.

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