Rotters
Daniel Kraus

Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Hardcover, 464 pages, $16.99
Review by Sheila M. Merritt

It’s hard to imagine a weirder book than Rotters, the heart-warming tale of a father and son who bond through grave robbing. Marketed as a young adult novel (ages 16 and up) the narrative contains the expected gallows humor as well as a surprising poignancy. Author Daniel Kraus suggests that cold bodies can lead to warm relationships. Surreal circumstances propel the story but mundane horrors, such as high school bullying, are also addressed. Kraus is sharp in his perceptions of adolescence; its sensations of awkwardness and alienation. He also knows how to invoke terror. There are scenes that induce shudders.

Consider, for example, this down and dirty look at the ghoulish profession: “Rats–lots of them. I steadied my hand and looked again. My stomach lurched. They were everywhere, fifty, maybe a hundred of them, churning through the dirt like maggots, their wriggling feet capering upward, their red eyes flashing from inside the very walls of the hole.” This is not how protagonist Joey Crouch envisioned his life. At age 16, his mother is killed in an accident. Joey is subsequently put into the hands of the surviving parent; the dad he’s never met. Forced to leave Chicago and move to a small Iowa town, the transition is huge. The turf is as foreign and remote as the estranged father’s disposition.

Believed by the townsfolk to be an eccentric garbage man, papa’s real occupation is unearthed by his offspring. A complicity is created as a result of the discovery, consigning Joey to a creepy consanguinity: “He told me, and I tried to understand, that what we had done was something ancient and possibly noble, but also vilified and to be undertaken with the utmost solemnity; and that, most importantly, it was a craft passed down for generations, teacher to student, as if of tonight this group included not just my father, not just a clandestine group of men spread all across the country, but also, horrifyingly, me.”

The “clandestine group of men” is an inspired creation for which Daniel Kraus deserves much praise. Each so-called “digger” is beautifully defined in character, almost quaintly quirky in bizarre behavior. There is one, however, who is so demented that he is a danger to the others and himself. He is specifically at odds with Joey’s dad and their mentor. In a perverse take on the Cain and Abel fraternal fight, a madcap maniacal power struggle ensues.

During the two years in which the story takes place, Joey gets a new grip on life – or rather on death: “The more I handled dead flesh, the more my own felt alive.” This is particularly true in school, where he starts to feel confident in his own skin when dealing with an abusive teacher, a thuggish jock, and an ice princess who wields her long nails like claws. Comeuppances are a staple of the teen revenge scenario, but when handled with skill (as is the case here) are fiendishly fun and sadistically satisfying.

Praised by Guillermo del Toro and R.L. Stine, Rotters is an arresting anomaly: A coming of age novel, with all of the de rigueur philosophical trappings; but warped and twisted in humor, and ghoulishly frightening. While the designated readership is the youth market, Rotters will have appeal to those of us who are closer to the grave.

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