***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
A good horror story with pacing problems and a sort of meandering loss of point.
Joey's mother dies, leaving him to his father's care in a small town in Iowa. Joey's dad, Ken, is taciturn and seemingly disinterested in him. He's called the Garbage Man, but the truth is that he's a graverobber. Joey is bullied at school and, friendless, turns to graverobbing with his father. The man Ken was raised with almost as a brother, Baby, is mentally unstable and disrespectful to the bodies he digs up, but becomes re-entangled in Ken's and Joey's lives, culminating with going on a graverobbing- (and for Baby, drug-) bender with Joey across the country (Joey's initial intention in following Baby is to retrieve a photo album that would implicate all graverobbers). Joey's dad is killed by Baby in a scramble for their surrogate father's treasure. Joey later kills Baby in return. At the end of the book, we see Joey recovering his life in Bloughton, getting his GED, being a cashier at a restaurant, starting to date Heidi, finding support in his old music teacher, Ted, but still little twitchy for more digging.
First, the good. I loved the society of gravediggers, their history, and the varying "ethics" of the participants. The descriptions of corpses and digging were outstanding (with only one quibble: Joey's mother's body would not have been recognizable 7 months later). The tone is perfect: sinister but engrossing. (As an example: the pure macabre touch of Baby leaving photos pinned to corpses he has robbed, showing their current state of decomposition.) Joey's "specifying" was an interesting character trait.
Ambiguity is my cup of tea, but I want the ending to be ambiguous, not the character of the protagonist. I never had a strong feeling for who Joey was, and what he learned, even though his voice was believably teen and was quite distinct. I never felt like his relationship with Ken evolved in a coherent direction, even though I think much of the plot is meant to show the development of their relationship. In many ways, Ken is the archetype of the noble graverobber--respectful and precise in his work, mindful of tradition and history--until he's emotionally derailed by seeing the exploited corpse of his ex-wife. And in many ways, this book is about Joey having digging in his blood, and not being able to escape that. Yet even though Joey comes to a sort of peace with his dad's personality, their reconciliation is rushed at the end in a single trip to beat other graverobbers to Ken's surrogate father's treasure, with too many fits and starts in how Joey feels about Ken in between. There is a sudden soliloquy by Joey after Ken's death about Ken's many names, "Dad" being the only one that suits him--a speech that doesn't feel satisfying because of the lack of a driving trend in their love. By the time Ken starts resorting to "bad jobs," I felt the relationship between father and son should have been stronger. Instead, Joey is repelled by Ken's misery (or maybe worse, there's a sort of indifference to his dad's plight). It made Joey seem colder than I think Kraus intended, and missed a valuable opportunity for character development.
Perhaps many of the book's missteps are due to how long it is. I often felt like the story became unwieldy even for Kraus, so that he lost track of what he was trying to say. First, we think Celeste may be sort of decent (she doesn't participate in his bullying), but then, no, we see she's shallow (she clearly only interacts with Joey to get at his Chicago contacts), but wait, yes, she is a good person--a mother and wife and community-theater actress (as he waxes sentimentally about her in the end); Joey and his dad are starting to understand each other, no, now they're not, but yes there's true love there in the end; Joey's joining Baby is supposed to grow organically from "just one more night" but the teen's despondency isn't really there to make the choice believable; Foley, Joey's new best friend at school, forgives him without discussion for breaking his fingers, and now wants to kiss him. I suspect another result of the unwieldiness manifests itself in the way the horror is ratcheted up to a point of unbelievability--a sparer novel could have meted out the gore more carefully. Could Joey have arranged the corpses for Celeste and his bully in one night? Could Baby and Joey have dug up 29 bodies a week? And now here comes Baby, walking on a dead, gangrenous foot...no, no, he's going to chop it off with his own shovel! Horror crosses a line where it becomes so easy and "fictional" that it loses shock value, and I reached that moment with Baby more than once. Also, "specifying" (aside from being cool) seems so promising as a literary metaphor, but becomes lost in the morass of the novel, and Kraus ends up using it simply as a handy plot device rather than a deep commentary on Joey's personality or struggle.
The beginning is a bit of a red herring, with Joey's dream-like recounting of the ways in which his mother might die that day. Perhaps I read it wrong, but it doesn't appear to be reflective at first (which I now think it was intended to be), it appears to be clairvoyant. For several chapters after that I wondered whether this "ability" of Joey's would reassert itself in the book.
Plausibility issues that made me stumble: 1. No one would locate a graveyard by the ocean in NC; 2. No one could dig up enough intact skeletons to be an audience for Celeste in one night (also, intact skeletons can't "sit" in chairs); 3. Why not do your math homework again in 2 hours rather than spend that amount of time digging it up (the textbook had been left by his bedside)? Finally, Kraus tried to motivate Joey's slide into gravedigging, but it felt forced: it required making Joey's best friend in Chicago reject him summarily over the phone (it was too sudden the way he dropped Joey, given the depth of their friendship, and never responded to his pleas for help), and there were some too-carefully placed bullying events at school that seem to nudge Joey into asking to learn the trade. I felt for a moment that I could see the author's revision process.
There was a continuity error I wish the copyeditor had caught: Joey says it never occurred to him that Bloughton would have its own graveyard, but then sees the famous Johnson grave through the gate and tells us all about it. Perhaps the tabloid gossip about the Johnsons is what's famous, but it's written as if Joey has heard about the grave.
And I had a lingering question: why would the patriarch of their gravedigging society "set-up" his surviving colleagues to fight each other to the death over his buried treasure? This is the man who brokered the gravedigging treaty among them, after all.
I'm delighted to have read this book, it's easy to recommend it to horror fans, and it's a good addition to serious YA. But I do think it's a near-miss in terms of literary greatness, which is too bad, because the language of the prose and the ingredients of the story are excellent.