Joey Crouch is 16 years old when his mother is hit by a bus and dies. A social worker eventually locates Joey's father, Ken Harnett, in Bloughton, Iowa and gently explains that his mother wanted him to go and live with this man whom he has never met. Upon arrival in Bloughton, Joey discovers his father living in a smelly, decrepit cabin on the outskirts of town; there is no food, not even a place for Joey to sleep. When Joey shows up at Bloughton High, he learns that his father is known as the Garbage Man, which makes him an automatic social outcast. Ignored at home, bullied (actually, it goes way beyond bullying) at school, Joey soon finds out the kind of garbage his father collects. Ken Harnett is a "digger," carefully exhuming the remains of the dead, robbing them of valuables, and then putting everything back as if he was never there.
Joey insists that he come along on Harnett's next mission. It's disgusting. Squishy body parts abound, as does plenty of creepy, graveyard atmosphere. Joey is at first repulsed, but continues to learn the trade from Harnett. He acquires and names his shovel. He gets tougher and stronger. Soon he doesn't care that he's beginning to smell as rancid as Harnett does.
He learns there is a network of diggers -- each operating in a defined territory -- organized by a retired digger named Lionel. Harnett -- known by the other diggers as The Resurrectionist -- was raised by Lionel, who also fostered and trained another digger; a digger who is losing his mind, named Boggs. Boggs appears to have known Joey's mother.
As digging begins to consume him, Joey all but abandons school; but is able to use his newly acquired skills to enact a terrible revenge on those who bullied him. When Boggs desecrates Joey's mother's grave, Harnett collapses, but Joey joins Boggs on a cross-country rampage in order to retrieve something Boggs took from his mother. The goriness climaxes in a battle to the death as a hurricane ravages North Carolina's Outer Banks.
Considering this book's length -- and the unappealing (on so many levels) subject matter -- I was caught up in Joey's story. (See The Marbury Lens.) He's a very compelling narrator, and I really enjoyed how the story just builds and builds and builds. There's lots of delicious foreshadowing (you know the minute that Harnett tells Joey how to get himself out if he's buried alive that Joey's going to be buried alive), and the story is satisfyingly resolved. The descriptions are vivid and the novel's tension hums along the whole time. By the end, though, there was a fair amount of piling on, and I could only laugh at the towering body parts and glistening putrefaction. I can certainly see the appeal of this book, but went in knowing that it wouldn't appeal to me.
I also went in knowing that Kirby Heyborne is not a favorite narrator. I've never heard him give a poor performance, it's that his precise reading style and sing-song-y delivery don't speak to me (so to speak). According to Audiobook Jukebox, I've heard him read six times (most recently here) and I've pretty much said the same thing every time. Where he surprised me in Rotters, though, was his portrayal of the novel's many adult males. When he loses the boyish, actorly speech, he's actually pretty interesting to listen to. He varies the volume, the timbre, and each character's pitch (deep to high) for these men and each is a vivid, natural-sounding character.
Despite my reservations about Heyborne, he always demonstrates that narrator skill of identifying and then vocalizing a novel's emotional arc. Joey feels everything in this novel, in a way he is decomposing (while living), and Heyborne delivers Joey's emotions in such a way that we share his journey intimately. Some of what happens to Joey is a sock to the gut and Heyborne makes sure we get that right in our solar plexus.
I'm excited to be going to this year's ALA Annual Conference and plan on attending the Odyssey ceremony. Some people would rather stalk George Clooney, but I want to check out Lincoln Hoppe and Wendy Carter. (I don't even know if their publishers invite them to come ...) And to hear what Kirby Heyborne sounds like in "real life."
[Joey and his father spend some time in Edinburgh, Scotland sleeping rough in Greyfriars Kirkyard. This photograph of the cemetery was taken by Eiscir and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]
Rotters by Daniel Kraus
Narrated by Kirby Heyborne
Listening Library, 2011. 16:18