I have a dilemma. I recently finished Rotters, a fantastic young adult novel by documentary filmmaker and author Daniel Kraus. Rotters tells the story of Joey Crouch—a young man who loses his mother and is forced to move in with his absentee father in a small Ohio Town. Joey knows nothing of his father. All Joey wants is to be included in something real, something safe, something consistent. What he gets is something that he could never have predicted—school days suffered in fear and frustration and a father who is just a shell of man, working on the outskirts of society, digging through the lives of the dead (literally) for his own gain. As Joey learns of his father’s less-than-legal occupation, his thoughts are filled with shame, but when Joey’s thoughts turn to the shambles his life has become, he realizes that he’ll latch on to anything that brings him solace, even going into the family business.
Rotters is extremely well-written, with a style and a substance that I haven’t seen in a YA book in awhile. It is challenging and intense, and it takes on serious YA themes: bullying, mourning the loss of a loved one, the difficulties surrounding father-son relationships. It sounds like a wonderful read, doesn’t it? So what’s my problem? Well…I just had a feeling while reading Rotters—a twinge that tugged at the corner of my mind and stayed static until I had finished the book. Emotionally exhausted, horrified, repulsed and at the same time extremely satisfied by what I had just read, I internally monologued that feeling (I don’t make a habit of making pronouncements out loud to no one in particular)—who do I recommend this to?
Is there a teenager sick and twisted enough to enjoy this story? It’s not a dystopic thriller. It’s not a teen dramedy. It’s not a fantasy with romantic leanings. It does not have any vampires in it (there are a lot of dead people, just no undead people). Rotters is a contemporary teen novel filled with thoughtful prose and stellar but often cringe-inducing imagery. Sometimes I felt like I was back in 6th grade health class scooting uncomfortably around in my chair as slides of STDs flashed up on the screen. So, thinking about this logically, this is probably not a book that I’m going to be able to get a parent to buy for their impressionable young adult—unless that impressionable young adult is obsessed with death and wholly uncomfortable situations.*
I would, however, recommend it. And there’s the rub, my literary-minded readers. My co-workers and I read a vast array of literature. Sometimes we come across a book that we read late into the night and sacrifice precious sleep for. Some of those book we can wholeheartedly recommend to just about anyone. But sometimes (rarely, but it happens) we come across a book of that same sleep-depriving stature, that no matter what we do, may struggle to find the audience it needs to survive the harsh landscape of the book business. Rotters is that book of the moment for me, and however macabre and unsettling the book may be, it deserves an audience. Enter at you own risk.
Here are few more titles that my co-workers love but find it hard to come up with the perfect reader to recommend them to…
Columbine by Dave Cullen
This is the astonishing account of two good students with lots of friends, who came to stockpile a basement cache of weapons, to record their raging hatred, and to manipulate every adult who got in their way. They left signs everywhere, described by Cullen with a keen investigative eye and psychological acumen. Drawing on hundreds of interviews, thousands of pages of police files, FBI psychologists, and the boy’s tapes and diaries, he gives the first complete account of the Columbine tragedy.
The Instructions by Adam Levin
Combining the crackling voice of Philip Roth with the encyclopedic mind of David Foster Wallace, Levin has shaped a world driven equally by moral fervor and slapstick comedy—a novel that is muscular and verbose, troubling and empathetic, monumental, breakneck, romantic, and unforgettable.
Tender Morsels is a dark and vivid story, set in two worlds and worrying at the border between them. Liga lives modestly in her own personal heaven, a world given to her in exchange for her earthly life. Her two daughters grow up in this soft place, protected from the violence that once harmed their mother. But the real world cannot be denied forever—magicked men and wild bears break down the borders of Liga’s refuge. Now, having known Heaven, how will these three women survive in a world where beauty and brutality lie side by side?
Pregnant and secretly married, Cheryl Anway scribbles what becomes her last will and testament on a school binder shortly before a rampaging trio of misfit classmates gun her down in a high school cafeteria. Overrun with paranoia, teenage angst, and religious zeal in the massacre’s wake, this sleepy suburban neighborhood declares its saints, brands its demons, and moves on. But for a handful of people still reeling from that horrific day, life remains permanently derailed.
At twenty-one, the passionate and headstrong Ann Veronica Stanley is determined to rule her own life. When her autocratic father forbids her, via formal letter, from attending a fashionable art-school ball, and even further refuses to allow her advanced study of science, she decides she has no choice but to leave her family home and make a fresh start alone.
Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg
Bill Clegg had a thriving business as a literary agent, a supportive partner, trusting colleagues, and loving friends when he walked away from his world and embarked on a two-month crack binge. He had been released from rehab nine months earlier, and his relapse would cost him his home, his money, his career, and very nearly his life.
Where We Going, Daddy: Life with Two Sons Unlike Any Other by Jean-Louis Fournier
Jean-Louis Fournier did not expect to have a disabled child. He certainly did not expect to have two. But that is precisely what happened to this wry French humorist, and his attempts to live and cope with his Mathieu and Thomas, both facing extremely debilitating physical and mental challenges, is the subject of this brave and heartbreaking book. Fournier recalls the life he imagined having with his sons—but his boys will never really grow up, and he mourns the loss of every memory he thought he’d have.
Reviews are courtesy of IndieBound.
*Here’s hoping we get a wave of young Goth kids sauntering through the bookstore looking dejected and haggard but with the twinkle in their eyes of an avid and insatiable reader.