Most of us, hopefully, have never undergone a near-death experience. Or perhaps we have, but we didn’t see God. Wait, what?
Yeah, God. Don’t worry, though, it gets better! Because God, who apparently sounds sort of like Morgan Freeman, has a plan for you. A List–sort of like the grocery kind–that reveals five objectives you should complete to…well, make high school suck less, I guess. Confused yet?
Cliff Hubbard, loser extraordinaire, known by the student body as Neanderthal due to his enormous size (6’6″ and over 250 pounds), is thrown into an unusual alliance with incredibly popular quarterback, Aaron Zimmerman, after Aaron claims to have seen God and received His message while in a coma.
Cliff, whose axis is still spinning off center due to his brother’s suicide, is reluctant to join lame, uber-star Aaron on his quest to bring enlightenment to Happy Valley High School. Against his better judgment, Cliff does, which spirals into a Sermon Showdown against the Jesus Teens, countless trips to the principal’s office, raging teachers and lawn mowers, and an unforgettable school year–all driven by the divine nature of a possibly insane List.
First things first: this book’s humor is on point! To the mild alarm of my mother, I would burst out laughing at particularly well-timed paragraphs. Now, when it’s a forced sort of funny because the author obviously tried too hard, it verges on the edge of annoying. Norton, though, is clearly the master of the funnies; humor rolls off his writing effortlessly, slipped into the seams of dialogue, stitched imperceptibly in Neanderthal’s hilarious narration. What I’m trying to say here, ladies and gentlemen, is that this dude has talent!
Second: I absolutely love the friendship evolution between Aaron and Cliff. Norton builds up their relationship so meticulously, at the perfect pace, so that by the end of the book undeniably there exists an adorable bromance between the two. Aaron and Cliff are so incredibly relatable, each with their struggles and hardships, that they gradually reveal to each other. In subtle ways, they are able to remind us of what friendship truly means.
Even after I closed the book, I was thankful to be reminded by Norton of the gratitude we must hold for our friendships. Amidst all of the confusion and hatred in the world now, sometimes all you need is that one friend that makes you laugh until you cry, and will cry with you; the friend that will never question eating ungodly amounts of bacon with you for breakfast; the friend who you know will never judge you, no matter what you tell them; the friend that makes you feel, even if only for a fraction of a second, infinitesimally times better when you hold their gaze steadfast; the friend that you thank the universe brought you together, because you cannot possibly imagine living without them.
At first, I thought the book was going to be highly religious or somewhat “preachy” about life lessons, if you know what I mean: “Time heals all wounds! Hope is our saving grace!” I was wrong. Universal messages are presented beautifully throughout the plot, and I was impressed by the wide range of present societal issues that are presented throughout the story, such as homophobia, bullying, substance abuse. I loved how the story prompted me to become philosophical with it–did God really come to Aaron? Or was it the workings of his subconscious mind during his coma, stirring up the depths of his morality as he truly grasped the incompetency of his high school?
But what I truly enjoyed about this story is how touching it can be to the reader on a personal level. These characters are quintessential models of our suffering, loss, grief, and hidden struggles that we may not wish to reveal to the world.
To be honest, this YA fiction reminded me strongly of the novel Darius the Great is Not Okay. Both present messages about hope, of putting one foot in front of another, even when sometimes you feel as if you’re trying to tread through wet cement. Sometimes there’s this wide, yawning chasm of despair inside of us that cannot be filled, until we are drawn into the golden light of friendship and purpose–though probably not all of our callings are to save the future of our high schools.
But hey, do we have to sit around patiently and wait for our callings? God or no, is there any reason why we shouldn’t be the voices of change? This book reminds us that change starts with us, even if we might only be sleep-deprived teenagers in this big, confusing world. Though we may feel uncomfortable in our own skins, no matter how irreparable or insignificant we seem, we have graced this earth for a purpose…a purpose that may leave an imprint on the world bigger than Neanderthal’s size 14 shoes.
Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe by Preston Norton is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library.