This book is a thriller and chiller of the sort that probably would have turned stomachs a generation ago. But if you’ve been watching CSI and its spinoffs, you may already have an idea what decaying corpses look like—though, mercifuly, not so much how they smell and feel. So this may be the perfect time to read a book featuring ripening bodies, graveyard dirt, and the last days of a secret subculture of grave-robbers. All the same, the content and language in this book demand an Adult Content Advisory. This may be a young-adult novel, but before parents and teachers recommend it to young adults, they should be advised that the young adults in it speak and behave like the real-life young adults in today’s high school scene. This means sexual content, strong language, and vicious bullying by both adults and fellow teens. But the darkness of the world that envelops its main character, eleventh-grader Joey Crouch, is more disturbing still. Mature readers wanted!
Until the summer before eleventh grade, Joey has lived in Chicago with his divorced mother. He knows nothing about his father, except that he is to blame for the disfigurement of his Mom’s bad ear. Her partial deafness contributes tragically to her death under the wheels of a city bus, and before Joey has fully recovered from his grief, he finds himself uprooted from his Chicago life and transplanted to a small town in Iowa, where his deadbeat father is known as “the garbage man,” even though no one has ever seen him collect garbage. Ken Harnett has no idea how to be a dad, as he immediately proves by leaving Joey alone to start his first week of school without any books, money, or food. Singled out for persecution by the school’s top jock and a sadistic biology teacher, Joey finds out what it is like to be a walking target. Things get so bad that, when his father starts grooming him to carry on the family trade of robbing graves, Joey’s outlook actually brightens.
But let there be no mistake: the diggers, also known as “resurrection men,” are a doomed tribe. Each of them is only one mistake away from being lynched by an angry mob, or worse. And while most of the diggers stick to their own territories, and abide by the rules that protect them all, there is one whose growing madness threatens them all. Harnett warns Joey to beware of Antiochus “Baby” Boggs, and gives him lessons on how to survive being buried alive. These lessons come in helpful when Boggs lures Joey along on his journey of self-destruction, fueled by drugs and psychosis. At the very bottom of the pit of darkness into which Baby leads the boy is a climax of deadly struggle, evil, and danger.
Joey’s adventures in the underworld of diggers makes this book both a thriller and an informative study of a strange and grim way of life. It opens a perversely interesting window on the science and culture of burial and decay. Meanwhile, his troubles at school explore the savagery that can lurk in the social structure of high schools, even in a small town. How Joey copes with this problem is ultimately both horrifying and satisfying. And what becomes of him and the other diggers is both touching and chilling.
An audio-book edition of this novel is available, performed by Kirby Heyborne—an actor best known for roles in the Mormon film industry, whose voice has an amazing ability to become completely different people. If your idea of a great voice actor is one who can create the illusion of being an entire cast of actors, you have to hear this guy. And this multiple-award-winning novel is a good place to start. Its author, meanwhile, is an independent filmmaker whose writing career specializes in young-adult novels that combine boys’ coming-of-age stories with horror, mystery, and the macabre. His other two novels to-date are The Monster Variations and Scowler.