I Was A Teenage Grave Robber: Daniel Kraus’s Rotters

May 13, 2011 | 5 min read

coverLest you fail to detect the skeleton of historical fact that gives shape to Daniel Kraus‘ unsettling, baroque, and surpassingly lurid new young adult novel, Rotters, I begin this review with a short history of the resurrection men, vulgarly referred to as grave robbers or body snatchers–the ignoble offspring of the European Enlightenment.  While the Enlightenment era is bedecked with many marvelous achievements in human thought and practice—the Rights of Man, the idea that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” an explosion in literacy rates and books and newspapers, coffee houses and salons, a vast increase in the circulation of ideas, the advance of natural history, navigation and exploration, chemistry, scientific classification, mathematics,  microscopy, medicine (the circulation of the blood, inoculation) and anatomy—like any revolution, the Enlightenment had its less savory side.

The resurrection men offer us a glimpse of the maggoty underbelly of the Scientific Revolution: As the idea of the body as a rational system, a machine of sorts, took hold in Europe, so the numbers of students eager to learn the science of anatomy increased–along with the demand for fresh corpses for dissection. And with this rise in demand, a new class of professional grave robbers was born: the resurrection men. These men disinterred buried corpses not for jewelry or clothes, but for the bodies themselves, which they sold to medical schools and anatomists. Poor medical students were known to moonlight as resurrection men in order to pay their medical school tuition—in dead bodies.  And when corpses were in particularly short supply, a few very enterprising resurrectionists were known to turn to murder to meet the medical schools’ demand (most famous among these: Brendan Burke and William Hare, who were tried in Edinburgh in 1829 for the murders of more than a dozen prostitutes, beggars, and boarding house lodgers—all of whose bodies they had sold to an anatomy professor. Burke was hanged and his corpse, as was usual in capital cases in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain, was given to a medical school for dissection).

Out of this gruesome prehistory, comes Kraus’ Rotters.  Kraus’ novel imagines (and I say imagines reservedly—perhaps such men do live among us) a modern breed of grave robbers: the Diggers, proud self-proclaimed descendants of the eighteenth and nineteeth-century resurrection men. Kraus uses this unwholesome sub-culture as a setting for one of the darkest, wildest, most unsettling adolescent novels I’ve ever come across. The novel’s scenes contain a superabundance of maggots, necrotic flesh, “coffin liquor,” and rat kings (masses of coffin rats whose tails have become  entangled such that they move as a single entity)—there’s plenty of all, but these are actually the least of the book’s horrors.  More sinister is the loveless, punishing fate that Kraus inflicts on his hero, 17-year-old Joey Crouch, whose story begins when his mother dies and he’s sent to live with his father, a man’s he’s never met, in Iowa.

Ken Hartnett, Joey’s father, is a Digger who lives in a hovel surrounded by onion beds on the banks of the Big Chief River.  Initially repulsed and enraged by his father, who is brusque, negligent, often drunk, and smells like rotten meat, Joey is gradually drawn into his underworld. Joey becomes entranced by the varieties of decay available to human corpses, relishes his own prowess with a shovel, his ability to leave a grave plot looking pristine, even after he’s excavated the coffin and taken the corpse’s jewelry—because while Joey’s dad proudly claims the resurrection men of Scotland and England as his professional forebears, he and his kind, the Diggers, are actually just old fashioned grave robbers: sawing off fingers for rings, prying out gold teeth, pocketing watches.  But they take great pride in what they do, how quickly and tidily they’re able to do it, who they’re able to do it to (Charlie Chaplin, Elvis, John Scott Harrison, the son of President William Henry Harrison): Once you’re in the ground, you’re just an anonymous rotter, no matter who you were in life.

What draws Joey to the rotter world is more mundane: Once in his father’s care, Joey’s destined to become his small-town high school’s untouchable.  Forced into his father’s quasi-savage way of life, Joey begins to look and smell feral—sometimes worse than feral.  He’s brutalized and humiliated by the jocks, taunted and blackmailed by a sadistic teacher, and ignored by everyone else. This is adolescent misery of a most exquisite variety.  I’m actually not sure why or how Joey is standing at the end, between the high school horrors and the more exotic, Digger-related horrors that he endures. Kraus shows Joey’s isolation, humiliation, loneliness, and hopelessness drawing him into the world of the Diggers. The less life offers him, the more he wants to dig—the more he wants to be among the dead, where pain and sorrow are finished forever.  Digging is an art and Joey’s got his father’s gift. And among the strange, death-scented old men who compose the Diggers’ union, Joey is cherished and admired, a wonder and a last hope for a dying profession.

Somewhere around the middle of Rotters, though, things start to feel a little unhinged. The plot begins to unfurl at an unnerving speed: grotesque demented vignettes are heaped on grotesque demented vignettes in an alarming, precarious array (example: Joey lures the king of the high school jocks into the weight room at school where he knocks him out and then entwines his victim among several naked female corpses in an orgy-like configuration). At this point, I began to imagine the structure of the book as something like the interior of the Kostnice, the bone church outside of Prague whose interior is decorated with tens of thousands of interlocking, piled human bones. Though, Rotters is less beautiful, more genuinely grotesque, more alarming—and not necessarily in an aesthetically useful way.

I am not squeamish–not at the sight of blood, nor in contemplating the hideous things that people can and do do to each other.  I’m also very fond of the grotesque: Goya‘s Disasters of War and Los Caprichos, most of Swift, Archimboldo, Tristram Shandy, Lewis Carroll, Edward Gorey —but I found Rotters hard to take.  It felt sometimes—beautiful though some of the writing is and beautifully conceived as some of the scenes are—as if the novel was a manic exercise (…here’s yet another scene in which the crazed, drug-addled clown-dwarf-digger loses a body part–an eye, now a foot, now his face is cleft with a shovel, now coated in slick black mud—now he falls face first into a pile of jewels and comes up with a diamond where his eye used to be—as he floats out to sea on a coffin…in the middle of a hurricane).  This stuff was too baroque for my taste—it was sensory overload.  Mind you, in a world rife with oatmealy workshop-cookie-cutter fiction, Kraus is absolutely original—which is what kept me reading—even when I started to feel like the novel itself felt a little poisonous, unwholesomely keen on human misery, failure, and despair (and I’m quite fond of human misery, failure, and despair as literary themes–what else is there, really?).

It also seemed that (perhaps?), taken as he was with the minutia of the Digger and high school life, Kraus lost sight of the ultimate shape he wanted his book to take—what it’s supposed to mean.  Though the novel seems intent on destroying Joey for about 400 pages, it gives him a kind of bland happy-ish-but-not-really-happy ending that I couldn’t make sense of. And looking back from the last page, I’m not sure I know what the book’s larger vision was.

What did it all mean? I’m not sure I can say.  But there’s something to be said for taking a dose of such wildness–such tumbling, aggressive, unkempt fiction–every now and again.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.