Rotters. Oh Rotters. You were disgusting. Just as I thought it was as gross as it could get, there'd be something else more appalling, repulsive, and desecrating.
Joey Crouch's mom is dead. He's in nowhere Iowa where people hate him just because of his strange and very smelly dad, who locals refer to as The Garbage Man. What his dad actually does is far more disgusting than waste management - he's a grave robber and the scent of rotting corpses clings to him. Soon, the grime and stink of his father's illegal trade will cling to Joey, too. This will bring him more difficulties than adjusting to a new town and getting over his mother's death. It will bring with it a familiarity of death and decay and danger.
The opening is magnificent. Joey catalogues all the ways his mother could die, but doesn't, ending with her actual death. The rest of the novel is propelled from that point, both in how his life changes, and how the past brought about his mother's death, and his future.
However, after that there's almost 200 pages of set-up. It's not unnecessary, and it's vital to Joey's character development, but between the gorgeous prologue and page 195, (where we're treated to a rousing and detailed explanation on how to escape being buried alive - and yes, I've committed this to memory, Lord save me. One must be prepared for anything), there is little to truly advance the plot, and is, therefore, the weakest portion of the story. Daniel Kraus' language is strong, but the school bullies, especially Woody and Celeste, are generic, lack depth, and could be transplanted to any book where bullies are required and fit right in. The first 200 pages is primarily devoted to making Joey miserable enough that he's able to descend low enough for the rest of the book to happen.
Science teacher Gottschalk was extreme, but not overboard, until the reproduction lesson on pages 142-3. Here he crosses over into sexual harassment of Joey, which seemed too much, given the character was cruel, but didn't seem stupid, and there's no real way to know that someone wouldn't rat him out to someone else who would make a stir. Gottschalk by action and even previous speech clearly felt he was a law upon himself in that school, and based on the behavior of the principal and vice-principal, I can see why - but those two did respond to incidents that could result in bad press, and this was surly one of those. Although it did not.
Continuing with first half character issues, is Boris and his family. They were so close to Joey that they shared his grief, and took him in until his father could be found, but Boris more of less immediately drops him? His parents never inquire after him? Make any overtures? When my reading of the situation was that had his father not been reached, it was likely that he'd just stay with them permanently? I know that this was done to further isolate Joey, but why even have the family in the story? Why not just throw him in temporary foster care after his mom dies? It'd be much easier for me to believe that some sketch foster family didn't care about him after he left, than Boris' family. But then, without friends, Joey had less to lose.
The grief and alienation of the first half of the book, leads to a desperation so strong that once Joey is brought into the "digger" clan, and is bestowed a nickname, "Son", he muses, "I felt an unexpected rush: If I were given one of these names, I would be part of a club. I would no longer be alone" p225. It's all he has, it's his only option, and, as he did with his academics, he throws himself all in. Into grave robbing.
Enter Boggs, who is a fantastic, believable, horror villain in his invincibility, psychosis, and grotesqueness. He he seriously one of the best villains I've encountered in ages, and it is his mania, unpredictability, and, er, villainy that propels the last fourth (plus) of the book. Unfortunately, it takes him far too long to enter the story. I would have liked, at the very least, more build-up or foreshadowing regarding him, to work us up to a good lather, since, let's be honest, yeah, there's the whole self-discovery, bildungsroman thing going on, but it's Boggs who gets the plot moving, and Boggs who drives Joey into the rocks at the bottom.
The details of grave robbing are fascinating, as are the rather disgusting details of decomposition. These are largely what keep the reader going during the first portion of the book. I should have pulled some of the really disgusting quotes for you, but I didn't think of it at the time, oh, wait, that's what Amazon's Search Inside is for. Let's just enter a rather unique phrase I remember, "coffin liquor." Yes, that'll do.
If you happen to be eating, I'd skip this next quote. Don't say I didn't warn you.
"I concentrated on my father. He was dealing with another ring that wouldn't dislodge from its puffy finger. He let the hand drop and it smacked into two inches of black slime. We call that coffin liquor, my father said as he reached for his wire cutter, and it's the result of bacteria in the casket's vacuum turning the corpse to mud. I watched him take the woman's left hand. Most of the skin sloughed off in a single sheet like a translucent glove - slip skin, my father assure me, nothing more. He let the skin dissolve into the coffin liquor and regripped the moist green hand. I noted with dull astonishment that the woman's nails were painted candy pink" p 110.
lalala. But really, you can't look away from that, right? And imagine your teens' reactions? Oh, I'm almost tempted to read that paragraph aloud during my next book talks... excellent.
I do think, ultimately, despite taking it to task above, that this is an excellent book. And if you can stomach (or revel) in that last quote, you definitely should read it. Or at least know who should.
On bullying: "The noses of the Incorruptibles [the popular bullies] were trained to detect fear, and in my metamorphosis to the Son I had lost that musk. A new target, therefore, had been chosen" p 350.
The question remains of whether or not there are grave robbers among us...