Daniel Kraus,
(Delacorte, 2011)

Daniel Kraus plunges both his readers and his main characters elbow-deep in decaying viscera in Rotters, a novel that resurrects the ancient art of grave-robbing.

Joey Crouch is not your average teenager, as you realize in the first few pages as he constructs the world around him to imagine every conceivable death that might take his loving, capable mother away from him -- except for the one that actually does. Orphaned at age 16, just weeks before beginning his junior year of high school, he is wrenched from his familiar Chicago surroundings and planted in rural Iowa with a father he neither knows nor cares about. The feeling is mutual, and Joey's new life does not begin with much promise.

He and his new school, too, get off on the wrong foot, and this former straight-A student finds himself at odds with students and teachers alike. But the bigger problem is the brooding figure of his father, whose life is a mystery until Joey solves it. Ken Harnett, silent and powerful, robs graves. And Joey, initially repulsed, soon finds himself drawn to the dark and unseemly livelihood, as well as the strange brotherhood that still practices the craft.

Kraus approaches his subject as both a scientist and a poet. As a scientist, he delves deeply into the mechanics of decomposition, the processes by which human bodies are preserved and the simple art of unearthing and recovering graves so that the crime is not detected by caretakers or passing mourners. As a poet, he uses powerful, lyrical prose to paint the beauty of death in its boldest, bluntest forms. As you read, you will feel the touch of clammy flesh and black ichor and smell the stench of ancient graves in a very real, horrible sense ... and yet you're not going to be able to turn away. Light on action, Rotters is a brilliant examination of Joey's character in extreme and upsetting circumstances.

And, while Joey is an extremely well-developed protagonist, he is surrounded by a host of interesting people. At school, his fellow students are every bit as self-obsessed and effortlessly cruel as you might expect, if you can remember high school at all. There are also oddly motivated administrators, a strangely sympathetic music instructor and a sadistic teacher who never stretches the bounds of credulity. Outside of school, you'll have a hard time finding a more unusual assortment of characters than the various diggers with whom Harnett -- and, eventually, Joey -- associates.

This is a dark, disturbing book, and one that is very hard to put down.

book review by
Tom Knapp

14 May 2011

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