It’s not often when I give a book a very bad review. In fact, I think I’ve only been truly displeased with the outcome of a story/series just once. And the same somewhat goes for a book I get really hooked on within the first few pages. Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe by Preston Norton was one of those books that got me hooked within the first few pages, and before I was halfway through, I was 99% sure that I was going to give it the highest rating possible.
The story centers on teenager Clifford Hubbard who doesn’t quite fit in with the regular crowd of high schoolers. He’s abnormally large, and although any football coach would love to see him on the defensive line of their team, Cliff hates sports. Despite his size, he gets bullied enough by the jocks, especially one in particular named Aaron Zimmerman, that he’s come to resent the it even more.
Life at home isn’t great. Even though he and his brother are loved by their mom, their dad is pretty much the antithesis of what she is. But he tolerated it. All of it. That is, until his brother killed himself. And that’s where the story begins.
The author introduces us to Clifford a year after his brother’s death, and we see that things are not so great for him. They’re actually even worse than before. He gets teased constantly, of course, but due to his size, he also gets stereotyped in several ways, none of them in a good and decent way. And not just by his peers, but by his teachers as well. Sadly, this is not unrealistic.
Told in first person, we get a real look into what and how Cliff contemplates events in his life. His narratives are often humorous, sometimes poignant, all believable. It’s a story that’s sounds familiar, yet unique at the same time. Norton does a very good job in making this character sound exactly like any other teen going through hard times, and the death of a loved one, that we very quickly are able to relate to him in one way or another.
When Cliff decides that he wants to actually kill the number one person on his hate list, who happens to be Aaron, we can imagine him seething with rage about it, because anyone who’s gotten bullied before knows how mentally and emotionally damaging that can be for said person. Fortunately for us readers, the story doesn’t end in a murder. Though something near tragic happens to Aaron, things change for Cliff in a very unexpected. Aaron asks his help in making their school a better place, or in the words of the book’s overview, “while [Aaron] 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.”
From this point on, Norton gives us a delightful story of Aaron and Cliff’s journey to fulfill God’s list for Aaron, from Cliff’s unusual acceptance of Aaron’s list to them gathering a very unlikely group of misfits together to make it all happen. The list itself makes the story even more interesting and you can’t help but want to be part of this team.
You are sucked in, engaged in their purpose and their set of goals, which includes dealing with a villainous-like teacher, a secret hacker, a very unchristian so-called Christian group, and the biggest bully in the school. All this plays into several sensitive subject matters that many people have to deal with, such as child abuse, suicide, bullying, and homophobia. Cliff’s narrative just keeps you wanting to know more, especially in how he deals with such things, including Cliff’s brother’s death, which is a constant throughout the book, mixing in heartache and tears in between the laughs, and even sometimes within the laughs.
In the end, you find that Cliff’s story is not so unique in the sense that we all moments of grief and moments of joy, sometimes intermixed. It’s very heartening, sometimes overwhelming, but also hopeful. Yes, you will cry, but you will laugh, too. The way that Cliff handles each situation feels genuine, feels real and from the heart.
To this, I commend Preston Norton for what he’s done in creating Cliff, and in writing the story in a way that doesn’t feel rushed or easy or preachy. He gives us a chance to think through all that’s happened in this short span of Cliff’s life – to feel it and learn from it. And hopefully, with that in mind you’ll be thankful for having known Clifford Hubbard, too.
Get a copy of Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe at the following: