Neanderthal Opens The Door To The Universe by Preston Norton—a book review

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 of 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.


Truths Google Can’t Provide

Students in my new literature elective and I read the poem “Questions” by Rachel Richardson this week. You can (and should) read Richardson’s original poem here: “Questions”

We then crafted our own versions of “Questions,” using different Google Search questions and different truths. I’m posting mine first, as I am thrilled to be writing alongside my students in this class. Then you’ll find student versions (from those who granted permission to share).

If there’s one true thing, it’s that
Google will make money off us no matter what.
If we want to know
the best backpack for back-to-school
(as it seems we do)
the best morning routine for school
(as it seems we do)
what hairstyle is on trend:
the monster is ready for its feeding.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
is a line by William Butler Yeats, and
many in Wyoming have asked, apparently,
How to kiss. Also
In California, why do dogs poop?
Who will remember me when I’m gone
May be up there, generating ad revenue, but not
As high as why do I sweat so much,
Or why do people lie.
How long will my name generate results
And will anyone
Bother to click on them even so.
Google will return with its innumerable
Grains of sand numerated:
How to say goodbye,
What to eat for dinner,
What is my astrological sign,
Why do we worry,
Am I gone forever, never to come back.

Haley’s “Questions”:

If there is one true thing, it’s that

Google will make money off us no matter what.

If we want to know

answers to life’s most morbid questions.

Like why do we die?

When will I die?

What’s happening to the U.S.?

Or maybe you don’t like morbid things?

So here you are four A.M. googling

Is Elon Musk single?

Is Brendon Urie lonely?

Or do penguins have knees?

Here we are distracting ourselves.

Time after time we stay up till sunrise and avoid

Our real problems. The messes we’ve made.

We’re distracting ourselves with questions like if the

last remaining member of Panic at The Disco is lonely.

The man’s worth eight million dollars

odds are he has friends.

Maybe one night that we’ve been up for 12 hours straight

We’ll all collectively open google and search

Who am I?

What am I doing with my life?

What are we doing here?

How do I fix things?

Maybe then we will truly break the internet.


Carter’s “Mostly Stolen Google Poem”:


If there’s one true thing

It’s that Google will make money off us no matter what.

If we want to know

What the most popular book in America is

(as it seems we do)

What the most popular TV show in the world is

(as it seems we do)

What is the population of the Earth:

The engine is ready for our desire

To be or not to be: that is the question,

Is a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and

Many have asked, apparently,

Why did I get married. Also

How to make money online. Am I pretty

May be up there, generating

High cost-per-click, but not

As high as how to lose weight,

What time is 1 AM PT in my region.

So many things I wanted to ask you,

Now that you’re gone, and your texts

Bounce back to me

Undeliverable. Praise to

The goddess of the internet search, who returns

With her basket of grain,

67,000 helpful suggestions

To everything we request:

How to play Fortnite,

What to do in a power outage,

How old is the Queen,

How to screenshot on Mac,

What Friends character am I,

Why do we yawn,

Where are you now, come back


Taylor’s “Questions”:

If there’s one true thing, it’s that

Google will make money off us no matter what.

If we want to know

How Tom Petty passed away or his final years of age

(as it seems we do)

How fidget spinners came to be and gone

(as it seems we do)

How much destruction Irma caused fellow humans:

To a site we trust, that is now our new superhuman.

Questions line up at the door, scurrying for an answer

To every inquiry from WebMD saying you have cancer.

Not every site is trustworthy, but still we proceed,

Even if the website is just full of tumbleweeds.

Yet, with every page we open and close,

Google is finding ways to make more money,

I suppose.

Within .46 seconds, Google is able to define itself,

Within .46 seconds, I can’t even find myself.

You treat the popular search engine like an old friend,

You still ask and can’t quite apprehend,

Why you still don’t have a girlfriend.

Face to face contact is not apart of today’s trends,

Because, at least you know, in the end

Google will still be your “friend”.

He is not a fake person, just not authentic,

Otherwise, you may be experiencing a hallucinogenic.

But with everything we request from a soulless

Search engine,

We still ask questions beyond our minds retention:

What is the function of a rubber duck,

How old is Donald Trump,

Is it going to rain today,

What is your name,

I don’t know,

It’s all the same.


Klaire’s “Questions”:

If there’s one true thing, it’s that

Google will make money off us no matter what.

If we want to know

who won the Super Bowl in 2015

who won the Mayweather vs McGregor fight,

Google is there to tell us.

What is the weather going to be like tomorrow afternoon

Rain or Shine?

how many windmills are in Iowa

how to play Sims,

Why did you leave me? Where did you go?

how to use a waffle iron

what time is it in Florida.

There’s so many questions

I need you to answer.

Where’s a good place in the area for a picnic?

Praise to

the goddess of the internet search, who returns

with all the answers I need.

Where was Adam Sandler on Tuesday?

Who will Odell Beckham be playing for this year?

Why are there clouds in the sky?

Please come back, will you come home?


Sadie’s “Questions”:


If there’s one true thing, it’s that

Google will make money off us no matter what.

If we want to know

How many wins Ninja has in Fortnite

(as it seems we do)

When the next episode of Roseanne airs

(as it seems we do)

What memes seem to be sweeping the nation right now:

Google is at the ready, waiting for our desired questions.

Wonder implies the desire to learn

Is a line by Aristotle, and

Many people have wondered even the most ridiculous,

In order to learn what they already don’t know.

Wonder leads to desire,

Desire can lead to greed.

What happens when we don’t find the answers we want?

Greed floods us, infects us until we finally find that answer,

Even if it’s completely wrong.

Google holds an apple full of poison,

Able to lead us away from what is right and to what is wrong.

Why fidget spinners became popular,

Why Fortnite is better than PUBG,

Why Hannah Baker committed suicide,

Why Pennywise stalks children for food.

All these questions have answers, but what we find

May not satisfy our greed and desire to know,

Not like opinions do.

The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik by David Arnold—a book review


Apophenia: the tendency to perceive meaningful patterns where none exist.

Noah Oakman is a kid of appetite; he even tells Circuit Lovelock (yes, that’s his name—bear with us) this the evening of their seemingly chance meeting at a high school party: “I think my appetite for life exceeds that of a normal human” (53). Noah’s appetite includes writing his own concise history, obsessing over a photo dropped by a singer who visited his high school, ritually reviewing a time-lapse YouTube video of a woman who took a daily self-portrait every day for nearly forty years, stalking an elderly man with a goiter who walks in his neighborhood, and consuming all available information about his favorite author, the enigmatic Mila Henry.

How do all of these appetites, these fascinations, connect? Noah is convinced they do, especially after his encounter with Circuit leaves his own circuits seemingly rewired, seeing a scar on his mother he swears wasn’t there before, the physical transformation of his family’s dog, the changing personalities of his gay best friend Alan and Alan’s sister Val. But not everything has changed: Noah’s younger sister Penny, for example, remains “pathologically authentic.” And Noah still has to make a decision about college and his future.

Arnold’s hyper-allusive young adult novel involves frequent David Bowie references (see also: the title) but it’s the Beatles who come to mind when I think about the patterns Noah finds. Specifically, “Eleanor Rigby”—”Look at all the lonely people/Where do they all belong?” Noah’s quest to find his place in the world, as it does for so many high school seniors, features the constant vacillation between the insistent dreams of the future and the resistant reality of loss. Loss of family, loss of friends, loss of self. A crippling fear that “the potential of loneliness is scarier than actual loneliness” (394).

If you’ve read Arnold’s previous novels, Mosquitoland and Kids of Appetite (and if you haven’t, fix that oversight), the mania, melancholy, and musings of Noah are of a piece with characters from those books. Until everything changes and Noah Oakman becomes Noah Hypnotik and we are figuratively taken across the universe.  The Strange Fascinations . . . makes Arnold’s previous novels feel positively restrained—the intentional bombastic sprawl of Arnold’s latest reads as though Walt Whitman decided “Song of Myself” should be a concept album and recruited some prog rock legends to record it. The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik is indeed strange, and hilarious, and strangely fascinating in its treatment of loneliness, longing, and loss. I encourage you to board the propulsive vessel of Arnold’s novel and float along in its most peculiar wake.



The Teddy Bears—To Know Him Is To Love Him

Tom Breihan over at Stereogum has been running a column about all the Number One songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart since its inception in 1958. (It’s great—you should check it out.) I decided to use each song as a writing prompt.


The specter of future ills

fills the clean notes with a grizzly

wall of dread—can we bear

the question of whether

we ever really know, know, know


Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi



What to do when your enjoyment of a book forces you to confront a genre bias:

1. Quietly place the book on a shelf in your classroom library, work on plausible deniability.

“Emergency Contact? Not sure how that got there—maybe the publisher sent it to me?”

2. Declare the book a genre outlier, anomalous, and praise it with “Yes, but . . .”

“Yes, I enjoyed Emergency Contact, but mostly because the author breaks with narrative convention by using lists and replications of text messages, and her usage of pop-cultural references and neologisms like “snack-crastinated” creates a ludic narrative voice . . .”

3. Admit how you tore through the book because you loved the two main characters and dug how the author unironically/ironically embraced many genre conventions—and finally admit to yourself and others that enjoying a good romantic story neither makes you a Disney-fied cultural dupe nor destroys the last vestiges of your illusory masculine street cred.

Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi will make you put down your phone long enough to see what happens between first-year University of Texas student Penny and slightly older barista/baker/brooding budding filmmaker Sam, the supposedly off limits and unobtainable “uncle” (it’s complicated) of Penny’s UT roommate, Jude.

And then pick your phone up and tell all your friends to read this book. Even if, like Penny, you’ve never had many friends.

Blisteringly funny, alternately snarky and heartfelt, a winning mixture of the engagingly trivial and the disturbingly real,  Emergency Contact illuminates as much as it captivates, shining lights of varying intensities on issues such as female friendships, mother-daughter relationships, modern romance, sexual assault, race and class in America, and the ways social media and technology are changing how we construct our identities and connect with each other. Highly recommended.

tl;dr (didn’t read my review; you should absolutely read the book) —crying from laughing emoji/actually crying emoji/heart-eyes emoji.


Tom Dooley—The Kingston Trio

Tom Breihan over at Stereogum has been running a column about all the Number One songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart since its inception in 1958. (It’s great—you should check it out.) I decided to use each song as a writing prompt.


A murder ballad missing Nick Cave’s


missing any sort of feral


any bloodlust or anguished

koan alluding to a dripping


missing the red right hand,

the stain

of Satan, the mark of


is reason to hang your head

and cry.





An Alpha Move with Beta Moments

An Amana dishwasher whose color is best described as “wan tan” and whose age is indeterminate but certainly older than any of my high school students.

A gas stove (the nomenclature here has always daunted me—range? oven?) in black whose age more closely approximates the middle schoolers whose twitchy jitters make me shudder.

A bench of slatted wood sitting under the kitchen window where the driveway meets the side door of my house, a bench pressed enough by weather to regress to the color of “not.”

I inherited these items when I became a homeowner eleven years ago.

The stove sputtered to a stop earlier this month; apparently the aging igniter no longer ignites (must. avoid. easy. metaphor. here.), and an ignition remix will cost more than the stove is worth. A replacement arrives next week.

The dishwasher still works—sort of. Sometimes it leaks a bit, as all systems do, though more noticeably than grammar. Sometimes the drain fails to provide proof of concept. “Clean” has itself become a shifting continuum; meanwhile, I fear the neighbors hear the dishwasher operate—this is not a subtle beast. A replacement arrives next week.

The bench remains, but with a personally chosen and applied fresh coat of paint—”Rookwood Dark Red.”

Repainting a bench may merit scant mention for most, but for craft-addled me, this is an alpha move. An alpha move with beta moments to be sure, most notably the sheen of terror at the Bazooka Joe color on initial application. Trust the reasoning —let the paint dry, bubblegum becomes burgundy. A bench renewed, ready to weather further seasons.

Sometimes what worked in the past needs replacing. Sometimes what worked in past needs refreshing. Sometimes we need to be patient with the process.

The new school year begins soon.


It’s Only Make Believe—Conway Twitty

Tom Breihan over at Stereogum has been running a column about all the Number One songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart since its inception in 1958. (It’s great—you should check it out.) I decided to use each song as a writing prompt.


“My one and only prayer

is that some day you’ll care.”


But what if the absence of God

is also God?


Two roads converged on a word,

and I—I mustered only a sigh,

And wished I could still tell the difference.



It’s All in the Game — Tommy Edwards

Tom Breihan over at Stereogum has been running a column about all the Number One songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart since its inception in 1958. (It’s great—you should check it out.) I decided to use each song as a writing prompt.

A sweet bouquet.

As he sidles up,

he whispers

your sobriquet

—part of the opening salvo

feigning intimacy,

love not as salvation

but acquisition—

not your real name.


A sweet bouquet,

but no plans to stay—

The game is still the game.



Little Star—The Elegants

Tom Breihan over at Stereogum has been running a column about all the Number One songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart since its inception in 1958. (It’s great—you should check it out.) I decided to use each song as a writing prompt.

The arbiter elegantiarum

of the royal court

of social media

says “full send,”

without fear

or favor,

to any photo

where your eyes twinkle

without filter.