Rotters by Daniel Kraus

Daniel Kraus has packed a lot into his book.  A lot.  It’s going to be difficult to summarize coherently, but here goes:

Joey Crouch’s mother is hit by a bus (because she had an injured ear and couldn’t hear the bus coming) and dies.  Having never met his father, or even heard his name, Joey isn’t sure what will happen to him after his mother’s death.  The social worker assigned to him tracks down Ken Harnett, Joey’s father, and sends him from his native Chicago to Bloughton, Iowa, population 4,000.

When Joey meets his father for the first time, Harnett, a muscle-bound man with dirty hands and knees, only wants to know is how Joey’s mother dies.  Then he leaves.  When Harnett brushes past, Joey realizes how bad his father smells.  In fact, he reeks.  So does his house/cabin/shack which is littered with piles of newspapers and old medical books.

Harnett, known locally as “The Garbage Man,” routinely disappears into the night only to return several days later filthy and smelling worse.  Determined to find out what Harnett is doing on these long excursions, Joey stows away in the back of Harnett’s truck.  When the truck reaches its destination and Harnett goes about his business, Joey discovers his father is a grave robber.  Insisting that Harnett teach him the trade, Joey begins his apprenticeship and introduction into the world of the Diggers.

Of course, that’s only the main plotline.  Meanwhile: Joey is the pariah of his new high school and is viciously bullied by students and a teacher.  He has to make his relationship with Harnett work while dealing with his grief.  He has a crazy Digger uncle who may want to kill him and his father.  And when he finally makes a friend at school, there are some serious complications to that relationship.

At just under 450 pages (13 discs for the audio version), Kraus takes his time developing this complicated book and he does so superbly.  I wasn’t sure how I was going to like a book about a grave robbing teenager, but I found myself putting in disc after disc.  I was fascinated by all of the horrible things going on in Joey’s life.  I was even more fascinated by the fact that the one bright and shining spot for Joey was being a Digger.  Seriously, the only thing for this kid to look forward to was digging up dead people and pawning their jewelry.

I’m still not really sure how I feel about Rotters.  I finished it and I think I liked it, but it’s one of those books that gives your brain a few extra wrinkles once you’ve read it.  I think my brain is still wrinkling.

The characters Kraus creates are vivid and visceral.  The high school students and teachers are darker and more alive than the archetypes they represent.  The other Diggers are shadowy people whose secrets, like juicy gossip, you are dying to discover.  Harnett is deeply flawed, but also caring and tender in his own way.  Joey is desperately wounded and this makes him so human.  So relatable.  Until he starts digging up coffins… Then he’s a little less relatable for me.  But I found myself really wanting good things to happen for Joey.  I wanted him to choose a path that would lead him back to the living, but I also, bewilderingly, found myself thinking, “Well, if robbing graves with your dad and living in the shadows are the only positive things in your life, who am I to tell you that’s wrong?”

With detailed descriptions of death and decay, this book is not for the squeamish, but should be ready by everyone who can stomach it.