Review: Scowler

Scowler by Daniel Kraus. Delacorte Press, Random House. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: August, 1981. Changes are coming; Ry Burke, 19, knows this. The family farm is dying and he, his mother, Jo Beth, and his eleven year old sister Sarah, will have to leave. Sarah hunts the sky for changes of a different kind: meteors are supposed to be falling this summer.

Some would wonder why the three Burkes stayed so long on the farm, considering the events of 1972. That was when Marvin Burke’s physical abuse of his family became so bad, he was sent to prison. Sarah was too little to remember anything, but both Ry and Jo Beth bear the physical and emotional scars.

Back in 1972, Ry and Jo Beth and Sarah barely survived. Ry, then ten, made it through with the help of three imaginary friends: Mr. Furrington, a teddy bear; Jesus Christ; and Scowler, an angry troll. Those childish toys and companions were put aside years ago.

Then Ry hears about a prison break, from the local prison. The prison where his father is.

Marvin’s coming home to the farm he loves. He’s coming home to the wife and son who sent him away. Ry is going to need his own strength, and the kindness, wisdom and brutality of his “Unnamed Three” childhood companions to survive his father once again — unless those companions turn on him.

The Good: Scowler flashes back and forth between 1981 and 1972, slowly revealing the full horror of what ten year old Ry and his mother survived. “Survived” is a bit of an odd word to use, considering, as Ry does, that “this was the Burke farm, over four hundred acres of nothing, and [Ry] was terrified to leave it.” What type of survivor stays in the place that defines them as “victim”?

What is survival? That is what Scowler examines, both the physical survival and the emotional survival. Ry’s ten year old self, scared and alone and desperate, made his three toys real. Mr. Furrington, the stuffed teddy bear with the British accent and the warm reassurances: “You can do it. I believe in you, old boy.” Jesus Christ, a Sunday School present: “Blessings unto thou. Thy teachers have toldest thou how.” And Scowler, a hideous homemade troll of teeth and metal whose fury and bloodlust is expressed in worldless rage: “Tk, tk, tk.

If you want, you can read Scowler as a horror story where these three toys do become real, to protect a small boy and later a young man. Or, as I do, you can read Scowler as a horror story where a person’s mind sometimes needs to invent and believe in things like the Unnamed Three to do what has to be done. Or maybe it’s simply a horror story because it contains people who believe the following to be true: “Things that emerged stronger from suffering were to be mistrusted” and “if enough time passes, the world ruins everybody.” Those are the truths one may believe on the darkest days; days like when Marvin Burke comes home.

Scowler is also a story about family; and while Ry is the main character, to me, Jo Beth is the true hero and the reason this book is set in the early 1970s and 1980s. I’m the type that wonders, why doesn’t she just leave? His abuse starts shortly after their marriage, why doesn’t she just pick up then and leave? For me, it’s easier to understand Jo Beth’s decision to stay realizing she was born about 1943, married about 1962, and so 1972 — well. 1972 isn’t 2013, is it, in terms of options for a woman in Jo Beth’s situation. It wasn’t until 1984 that The Burning Bed appeared as a TV movie, based on a 1977 incident, and yes, I think those things matter in understanding and sympathizing with Jo Beth’s decisions.

The language — the words that paint this time, this place, these people — are beautiful and horrible and terrible, and only horrible and terrible because of the horrible and terrible things they portray. Brutal things happen; a man doesn’t go to jail for over ten years “just” for hitting his wife. And that man that comes home seeking his revenge isn’t going to be content with “just” hitting. I confess, I skim-read a few pages because i had a hard time with it, and then I read the last few pages to reassure myself, and then went back to reading.

The Burke Farm in 1972 and 1981 — this is a real place, these people, their hurts and triumphs and fears, all real. Because of the horror, the easy person to name as a readalike is Stephen King. I thought of King’s portrayal of Jack Torrance; I thought of the death of a child from spinal meningitis in another book. But as I thought more, of the ties of family between mothers and sons and fathers and siblings, and of the creation of a specific place and time I thought of someone else: Pat Conroy.

So, yes, of course this is a Favorite Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Bookshelves of Doom; Stacked; boing boing.


Review: Rotters

Rotters by Daniel Kraus. Delacorte, an imprint of Random House. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: After Joey Crouch’s mother dies suddenly, the sixteen year old is sent to live with a father he’s never met. Chicago’s DCFS assures Joey that his father is expecting him and that the local county services has ensured it will be OK. Reluctantly, Joey leaves Chicago, the only place he’s ever lived, leaves his best friend, Boris, and goes to the small town of Bloughton. Nothing is as he expected; no one meets him at the train station. The house his father lives in is a one-room shack, dirty and smelly, with his father, Ken Harnett, nowhere to be seen.

School is even worse; Harnett is the town outcast, and Joey quickly becomes the target of bullies, both students and teachers. Joey thinks he’s discovered Ken’s big secret, that Ken is a thief. Joey thinks he’ll catch his father in action and then . . .  what? Turns out, Ken is a thief. Just not the kind that Joey and the towns people think. Turns out, Ken robs graves.

The Good: Rotters is a haunting book. It is horror, that unique type of horror book that has nothing to do with either the supernatural or serial killers. How can digging up the dead, disturbing corpses, stealing jewelry and gold teeth be anything other than horrifying?

And yet . . . And  yet when Joey discovers the truth about his father, he stays. He not only stays, he semi-forces himself onto his father as an apprentice in graverobbing. Soon Joey is learning about the ancient craft of robbing graves, with ties to both the “Resurrectionists” who stole bodies to sell to medical schools and the people who plundered the tombs of ancient Egyptians. Ken, who lives off the grid, relies on his memory, books, and newspapers to determine which graves to target. It’s not just who died, but who they were, as he decides who is likely to be buried with something worth digging up

Usually “world building” is something one thinks of for fantasy, or perhaps historical fiction, but rarely for contemporary fiction. In Rotters, Kraus has created a secret society composed of those who live beyond the edges of polite society. There are rules and treaties, ways of doing things and ways of not doing things. Kraus’s world is so full that I found myself wondering what parts of the world of cemeteries, decay of bodies, and burial were true and what parts made up.

Rotters is disturbing — the reader is there with Joey, shovelful of dirt by shovelful, as he digs up his first grave, uncovers his first corpse. The dirt, the smell, the aching muscles are all painted in detail. I’m going to be looking at cemeteries in a whole new light.

Rotters falls under the category of “books I want to discuss”. Part of it is to figure out, to explore, to go deeper into what Kraus has written. As mentioned in my review, and others, Joey’s father is a grave robber. Joey doesn’t learn about this right away. The first part of the book sets up Joey’s isolation and abandonment: his mother dies, he leaves his city, his best friend moves on, and in his new town his father is neglectful and he is shunned and mistreated at school. Why, I wonder, does it take so long to get the digging? Is it for the reader to understand, to sympathize with Joey, to understand why he takes the leap to embracing something so terrible?

The structure of the book continues in such a way that I kept thinking of it as independent Acts. Act I, Joey has to start at a new school were he is ostracized. Act II, Dad’s a gravedigger. Act III, the world of gravedigging revealed. Act IV and Act V, well, that would be spoilers.

Once Joey learns his father’s secret, a strange bonding / apprenticeship begins. Gradually, Joey finds out his father is not the only grave robber out there. It’s an odd world, a world of outsiders, who are driven by — what? And this is where I want to really discuss this book with others. What is the motivation? Am I too turned off by the desecration these men practice to buy into their fascination with the dead? Through the world of gravediggers, Joey gets what he lost: a father, a family, friends, a place, a history. He even gets his mother back, in a way. Rotters continues with strange and sudden twists — a reunion of sorts, a demented road trip, a character named Boggs/Baby who I pictured as Truman Capote playing Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, a family seeking revenge for their families’ graves being dug up, and a fight scene played out during a hurricane.

I admit, one reason I want to discuss this is I’m not quite sure of Joey’s own journey and relationship with grave robbing and graves. Much horror is metaphor: high school is hell, as Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught us. Joey is attracted to grave digging, but why? What drives him?

Stephen King said, “We make up horrors to help us cope with real ones.” What fascinates for Rotters is that it is not made up horror — Joey’s isolation, abandonment, torment, are all real. Yet even with that, the horror of gravedigging — while not made up by Joey — helps him cope with his life. Is it because gravedigging is hiding in the past, his own past with his mother? Is it believing that there is something noble in something that is base, does it make Joey think he is more noble than his everyday life indicates?

When I’m trying to figure out a book, and I don’t have someone to talk to, I read reviews. What I found that I thought you’d like:

Kraus did a guest post at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog, Cynsations.

The Book Smugglers review Rotters: “Elements of Mr. Kraus’s novel were near flawless, in particular the emotions of protagonist Joey, his struggles in school (what with becoming a social pariah and all), dealing with the grief of his mother’s death, and his father’s bizarre sense of paternal investment. Daniel Kraus’s writing style is at turns poignant and insightful, especially at the onset of the novel with Joey’s keen sense of observation (or his tendency to categorize minutia) and narrative voice.” I found their overall observations added to how I thought about Joey, his father, and their actions. Are issues left to the reader to discover on their own?

From The Millions (and the amusing post title, I Was A Teenage Grave Robber): “in a world rife with oatmealy workshop-cookie-cutter fiction, Kraus is absolutely original.” This touched on one reason I liked Rotters; it’s unique. It’s different. It’s over the top, at times, but c’mon, it’s graverobbers! The Millions asked what I asked, “what does it all mean.” Perhaps, sometimes, a story just is. I’m not sure.

Forever Young Adult also had fun with blog post titles with The Worms Play Pinochle On Your Snout. And then this: “Words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘haunting’ encompass a portion of Kraus’s prose, but these words, I feel, are paltry in comparison to how much of an emotional gut punch this book delivers time and again.  I know authors don’t necessarily appreciate being compared to other authors, but the only way I can think to accurately describe Kraus’s writing style in this book is to say that it was as if Flannery O’Conner took a bad LSD trip after watching ‘Faces Of Death’“. Bonus at Forever Young Adult: an author interview.