The pendulum has swung in YA, whooshing from the dystopia of Divergent to the old-school sweaty-palmed teen reality of John Green and Judy Blume. But just as doomsday Hunger Games copycats saturated the market two years ago, the glut of angst-ridden first-person novels about the everyday trials of adolescence are starting to blend together. So it’s a breath of fresh air when a novel like David Arnold’s Mosquitoland bucks the usual classifications and stands defiantly alone.
At first glance it looks like a typical Teen Problem Novel. Mim Malone’s parents have recently divorced. The 16-year-old has been forced to move from Cleveland to Mississippi with her dad and annoying stepmother, Kathy—parents who both pressure their daughter to take antipsychotic drugs for her emotional problems and seem to be covering up some disturbing facts about her real mom. After stealing emergency funds from Kathy, Mim sets off on a 947-mile trek back to Ohio, but a shockingly gory Greyhound bus accident warns you right away that this isn’t going to be an easy or normal road trip. Nor is this a normal YA book. Mim’s problems feel real and her motivations urgent, but the incidents and characters she encounters take on an almost fantastical tone. She may not be fighting aliens in a postapocalyptic world, but she does fend off a poncho-wearing pervert in a rest-stop bathroom with the help of some projectile vomit. Another swashbuckling action sequence: A wonderfully bizarre scene in which Mim witnesses hand-to-hand combat in a rural Kentucky gas station owned by a gay couple feels as if it came straight out of a grind-house flick.
Mim’s view of America is bracingly grotesque, hopeful, and perceptive—the way she describes the peculiar sadness of the grape soda at a roadside burger joint is worthy of pause. On the other hand, her narration can verge on the precious, and there’s plenty of weirdness for weirdness’ sake. But just as the novel’s absurdity teeters on the edge of monotony, Arnold brings us to the conclusion of Mim’s journey. And like any odyssey worth embarking on, what the heroine—and the reader—finds along the way is far more interesting than we ever could have expected. B+