You begin the new school year with hope and good intentions. (If you don’t: stop teaching.)
Virus-free desks, virus-free computers.
But then one of the two cameras doesn’t work and School Picture Day Fiasco of 2018 ensues.
You spend four hours saunaing in the pillbox of football concessions, missing your nephew’s first start as QB1. Your team loses and your body exudes popcorn oil for eternity.
You miss the fourth day of school to travel one hundred minutes to a required class serving no purpose other than credentialism. All you learn is this fact: The same class was offered before the school year started, only you were not offered this choice. It rains for one hundred minutes on the drive back home.
One your building’s wireless networks has to be shut down because someone has been illegally downloading a recent Hollywood blockbuster.
A student of yours misses the entire second week of school, and no one knows why.
A student of yours is sent away for placement.
Two weeks in and already the world is too much with you.
You need a shot of redemption, a growler of serotonin.
You pick up Neanderthal Opens The Door To The Universe by Preston Norton.
And you remember your purpose.
Cliff Hubbard, the narrator of Neanderthal Opens . . . , is larger than a CLIF Bar and nearly the size of an actual cliff. He is unlikely to eat an actual CLIF Bar, as his diet consists mostly of Pop-Tarts and pizza. His classmates can’t see past his bulk and his bracing disdain for everyone and everything but the movies he mostly watches alone. They call him Neanderthal—if they speak to him at all. They see his size and his silence as an invitation for harassment and bullying.
“Classmates” is the appropriate term, as Cliff’s only friend was his older brother, Shane. Note the use of the past tense.
High school is hell for Cliff, and home merely another level of the underworld, with a drunken, abusive father and a mother proving how a smile can be the ultimate form of denial.
Then the school’s star quarterback and living embodiment of toxic masculinity Aaron Zimmerman, fresh from fisticuffs with Cliff, suffers an accident that leaves him in a coma. Aaron emerges from the coma a changed man, convinced God has spoken to him, convinced God wants him to change his high school, convinced God wants Cliff to help Aaron make this change happen.
Convincing Cliff, however, may require another act of God. And actually completing the list? How hard could it be to redeem the school’s biggest bully? How hard could it be to convince the school’s meanest teacher to hit the reset button on his life and his career? How hard could it be to overcome the school’s version of the Spanish Inquisition?
As hard as . . . , well, I could the same figurative language as our narrator, but I’m not sixteen years old.
In turns scabrously funny and fabulously transcendent, Neanderthal Open The Door To The Universe successfully mixes the sacred and the profane as Aaron and Cliff team up with a motley crew of Breakfast Club outsiders, most notably the pint-sized, foul-mouthed spitfire that is Tegan, the younger sister of the school’s main drug dealer.
Elevator pitch: Deadpool meets Dead Poet’s Society—and it works.
Cliff isn’t a suited superhero, but he’s the kind of superhero suited to our broken present—the kind who makes us believe broken can be fixed.
Oh, and your purpose? Tegan makes it explicit (she makes most everything explicit):
“Sometimes . . . we get so caught up in the things we gotta do . . . that we forget about the people.”
And now Monday feel less like a burden and more like an opportunity.