Let me make one thing perfectly clear: "Rotters," by Daniel Kraus (Delacorte Press, 2011) is not for every YA reader. Well, what book is? But this novel is filled with enough bloated corpses, squirming maggots, predatory rats, severed appendages, and noxious odors to choke even the most jaded fan of the horror genre. You get my drift.
Okay, are you still with me? Good, because you're in for quite a ride.
Sixteen year-old Joey Crouch is a straight-A student living with his single mother in Chicago. He plays the trumpet, has one good friend, and pretty well succeeds at staying under the radar of high school bullies looking for a soft target. That all changes when his mother dies in a tragic accident--a death chillingly foretold in the book's prologue.
He is sent to a small town in Iowa to live with Ken Harnett, the father he never met. Harnett is a surly brute of a man with a rancid stench so bad that the locals have dubbed him The Garbage Man. He is also rumored to be a thief.
The new kid at school soon finds himself burdened not only with his father's noxious odor but his reputation as well. Mercilessly bullied by students and one sadistic teacher in particular, Joey has no choice but to embrace his father--and his father's grisly trade. Harnett is no garbage man, but he is a thief. A grave robber, to be exact.
With that, Joey enters a brotherhood of loosely organized, solitary men who view their calling as noble, in the tradition of the resurrection men--19th century grave robbers hired to steal bodies for use in medical school dissections. It's a shocking premise, but in its heart this book is about the bond between a father and his son, taboos, and most of all, mortality. Perhaps no one but Kraus could bring such lyrical beauty to descriptions of death and decay.
I'd been wanting to read and review this book for a while; I've long been a fan of the macabre, from Edgar Allen Poe to Stephen King. Kraus is a Chicago author, and "Rotters" had generated a good amount of buzz. When I read that the Audio Publishing Association had awarded "Rotters" (Listening Library and Random House Audio) the 2012 Odyssey Award for the producer of the best audiobook for children and YA, I knew I had to give it a listen. I listen to a lot of audio books, and in my experience the reader can make or break a book. This book's reader, Kirby Heyborne, really delivers, giving each character an individual voice and real emotional depth.
If you have a strong stomach and have a taste for books that are dark, creepy, and shocking, you should give a "Rotters" a read--or a listen.
This review was originally published in the April 15, 2012 edition of The News-Gazette.