The titular Neanderthal is sixteen-year old Cliff Hubbard, an uninvolved big guy who tends to use his fists when dealing with the school bullies. His only friend before was his older brother, Shane, who committed suicide months ago before the book starts.And now he is left aimlessly alone along the harsh halls of high school. So while traversing said halls, Cliff was provoked and had a scuffle with popular goodlooking quarterback, Aaron. Cliff got suspended for a week for it. He vowed he would beat the living lights out of Aaron once his suspension is over. But alas, Aaron got into an accident then came back from coma after three days Messiah style, proclaiming that he has a God-given to-do List and Cliff has to be his anointed holy sidekick. Cliff accepted, because Aaron echoed something Shane said when he was alive: Life isn’t just existing, it’s a door.
The book is in first person PoV. Because he has no friends, Cliff outwardly looks reserved and quiet but my oh my, his narration and character descriptions are bursting with wit. Even Aaron, during his fight with Cliff was surprised when he deigned to trade insults with our homeboy, “Wow, the Neanderthal knows words and shit.” Yep, Cliff is brains and brawn, baby. Really, these people who are name-calling him Neanderthal could never be so wrong because he is far from a dim-witted caveman that they think he is. He is reasonably good at math. He reads classic sci-fi and dystopia books for recreation. And has an arguably superb taste in films (you be the judge: sci-fi, Quentin Tarantino and Jim Carrey). Although he has these Shane baggage and domestic issues going on, he did not sound overly maudlin about them. And despite his reputation as a blood-thirsty, brawl-magnet student of Happy Valley High, he is a gentle giant deep inside.
The book accomplished the daunting task of fleshing out a large cast of characters. I appreciate Aaron, his redemption arc and his mortal enemies turned best of friends relationship with Cliff. I adore Tegan, the love interest with an overflowing sass and personality. I especially like how she broke out of the manic pixie dream girl box. She has her own hopes and dreams, one of which is to become a spoken word artist, and she was given her own domestic issues to deal with. Another stand out character for me is Noah Poulson. I love his complexity as a Christ-believing, preacher’s kid, only openly gay student of Happy Valley High. For years, he was trying to establish a Gay Straight Alliance in school but to no avail. His weariness breaks my heart because he’s been trying so hard and is on this battle alone for too long. His biggest obstacle and heckler is his sister, Esther, the leader of Jesus Teens. Aside from them, there are the teachers, the druggies, the nerd herds, all of which are given things to do, things to say, and while reading I can feel that they have their own lives that exceed their allotted pages in the book.
The book is not perfect. You have to heighten your suspension of disbelief to get through some plot elements. First is the List itself. As the story delves deeper, it becomes less and less the epiphany that Aaron claims to be. But where did it exactly come from? The book did not explain. My guess is it’s a manifestation of Aaron’s subconscious guilt to his douchebaggery, but even then the List appears too much all-knowing. For the record, I can easily forgive this because as Cliff said, the List felt like the right thing to do and its comprehensibility is beside the point. Second is this important scene that heavily relied on coincidence. I will be purposely vague here so as not to give away too much. So there is this lucky hoodie birthday gift from Shane which Cliff thought is actually bad luck because bad things happen when he is wearing it. At the crucial moment that I am talking about, Cliff was able to pull out of its inner folds, an important piece of paper with something important written on it. I can maybe forgive the coincidence thing but wait what, was the hoodie never ever been washed all these months? Because in my personal experience of accidentally leaving notes on clothes and washing it, the paper would mush and the ink would blot, all things written on it beyond recognition.
Now what really warmed my heart for the book, despite its flaws, is its overall message of hope delivered in a very entertaining way. The book is hilarious with its rife pop culture reference, memes and such. It’s funny how I was on the verge of tears a lot of times but this book just refuses to make me ugly cry with its jokiness. It will engage you in deep reflection but it also has this built-in cheer up feature to pull you up from some serious funk mode. In a way, Cliff and Aaron became the prophets of Happy Valley High in their own right, stirring the people to never stop caring. The ending felt earned and accomplished. The book has a lot of shining moments that delivers something profound about finding your own place under the sun. If you are a person like me who sometimes finds herself crumbled with the crises of existence, shaking a fist to the universe, yelling, “WHAT’S THE POINT?”, this book is for you. Its characters will shake their fists with you, yell with you, ask the questions with you, seek and maybe find the answers with you.
- fleshed out adorable set of characters
- rife w/ funny pop culture references
- delivered an overall message of hope in an entertaining way.