Despite the cover art and subject matter, I won’t be handing Daniel Kraus’ Rotters (Random House, 2011) to reluctant readers. Instead, I’ll be hand-selling it to adults who usually read literary fiction. Yes, that’s right. I’m going to give a YA book about grave robbing—set in the present day, no less—to people who pride themselves on having read the National Book Award and Booker Prize winners before they’re announced.
What can I say? It’s that kind of book.
Read Bookshelves of Doom on Judy Blundell.
If you simply judged by the premise, you’d assume the opposite. After the sudden death of his mother, 16-year-old Joey Crouch is forced to leave Chicago for the first time in his life to live in rural Iowa with the father he’s never met. On his first day at his new high school, he learns that his mostly absent father is known around town as the Garbageman—a name that Joey can fully understand, due to the odor and condition of his new home. He is tormented by teachers and peers alike, and his new nickname, Crotch, is the very least of his daily worries. But when he discovers how his father really makes his living—and then becomes his apprentice, entering a hidden world filled with secrets, honor and history—the importance of high school drama/trauma begins to fade.
So, sure, it sounds like something to recommend to those who are still mourning the end of the Darren Shan saga. But then, I haven’t talked about the writing yet.
As a narrator, Joey’s voice is very distinct and slightly formal—he uses words like “surely” and “hastening”—but when he speaks, he sounds like an ordinary teenager, and the dialogue always feels right. Lines that would sound stilted coming from other characters in other books ring true in Rotters because so many of these characters are solitary people, unable, unwilling and not used to interacting with other human beings. Or at least human beings who are alive. Unlike so many other stories narrated by adult characters looking back on their teen years, there is no hazy filter, no feeling of distance—Rotters has an immediacy and a realism made all the more impressive by the strangeness of the storyline.
It’s certainly not for the easily nauseated or squeamish—if I hadn’t already been leaning away from traditional burial, I certainly would be now. But although Rotters has its fair share of post-mortem gruesomeness, the most stomach-turning scenes all involve the living interacting with the living, rather than the living unearthing the dead. The matter-of-fact grotesquerie made me think of Charles Bukowski, and the long, winding passages often echo H.P. Lovecraft. In general, the book feels both epic and claustrophobic, which should be an oxymoron but isn’t. It’s a long book, but not because of long-windedness—at no point did the story get away from the author—and from beginning to end, it feels tightly controlled.
The rhythm is extremely jarring at first. Joey’s narration moves from staccato bursts to careful, almost loving, descriptions and back again at a dizzying rate, and in the introductory passage, the lack of dialogue makes it feel doubly so. But once I found my footing, I didn’t look back. It wasn’t just the writing, the storyline, or even the idea of the hidden history of the Diggers that fascinated me—it was the exploration of humanity and mortality; of respect and revenge, desire and need; of family and solitude, guilt and redemption. No, even if I’d wanted to take a break, I wouldn’t have been able to take it. Once Rotters had me in its thrall, that was that. I didn’t put it down until I’d finished the last page, hours and hours later, and far too early in the morning. It won’t be long before I read it again.If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is probably engaged in yet-another pitched battle with her new cat.