In the Land of Long Fingernails Paperback – Mar 21 2011
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If Raymond Chandler had written a memoir, I could imagine it reading like this. —Mary Roach(2008-11-22)
Wilkins's strange-but-true memoir . . . will fascinate, disturb and most certainly entertain. —Publisher's Weekly(2008-11-22)
"A fascinating account." --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
The account of that mysterious and macabre summer at Willowlawn Everlasting Cemetery illustrates beyond any doubt that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction. Thrown together with a band of Chaucerlike characters, Wilkins gives a provocative and unabashed account of his life as a gravedigger. The reader is rewarded with insights and observations that only an astute insider could provide.
You will meet the manager of the cemetery, Scotty, a bigoted and arrogant autocrat, whose day begins with a full measure of Cutty Sark, and whose alcoholic induced state of anger and meanness leads the workers to contemplate casting him in an empty grave with strong chemicals, covered with several tons of soil. A sort of farewell finale for the boss.
We learn, perhaps not surprisingly, that there is still a pecking order in death, so the Garden of the Last Supper is for the wealthy and dearly departed. The risks for unmarked graves include neglect by the cemetery and hardly any maintenance, and sometimes their disappearance due to ghastly errors. However, regardless of ones status in life, there are no guarantees in death. Wilkins learned that lesson on his second day at the cemetery, hearing that Hogjaw,one of the workers with a reputation as a scoundrel, once swiped a Rolex off of a corpse. Theft of the deceased was always a risk.Read more ›
Very happy I made this purchase.
Also, I was totally surprised how fast the book arrived.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
There is technical terminology to be mastered: cracker boxes, sinkers, stinkers, brown patrol and more.
Although Wilkins's tale tells a lot about the dead, it tells us even more about the living. The odd cast of characters from "Scotty," the long-suffering and insufferable manager of the cemetery and finally, "Alcoholic Emeritus," to the grave-digger work crew are Wilkins's companions in this summer of 1969, the year of Woodstock.
Of special note is his confidant and mentor, Luccio, more than a decade older than the then 19-year Wilkins. Luccio is a most unique role-model. Fellow grave-digger Norman, whose raison-d'etre is rock musician, plays showy riffs on air guitar is quietly unmasked as a mere equipment guy. Peter the Dutchman, "senior gravedigger" and heir-apparent to Scotty; Fred, a one-armed former juggler and WWII prison-camp survivor; the oafish Hogjaw; and finally, "non-man" Denise hired as the first female gravedigger round out the other living who made this summer job so memorable for Wilkins.
Five stars! "In the Land of Long Fingernails" is more a coming-of-age tale and a tale about the living than it is a tale about cemetery work, dying and decomposition.
The details of the cemetery business are particularly interesting. Take "sinkers," for example. That's what it's called when a casket collapses and then forms a depression above. What the workers on "sinker patrol" do is make cuts in the sod, peel it back, fill in some dirt, then zip it back up.
The day-to-day chores are particularly interesting, but there are also some major events that happen during the summer - an exhumation, a strike (including putting the bodies "on ice" in the chapel until it's over), the introduction of a female worker, and more.
What really makes the book though are the characters. And characters they are. The two main ones are the boss, an alcoholic Scotsman who's been there forever, and an over-educated Italian with anarchist leanings. Wilkins really has a touch for this odd bunch and their fascinating interactions.
The book also combines a feel for the summer of 1969 (the smell of marijuana pervades everything) and a bit of a coming-of-age story.
Interestingly, I debated giving this book a 4. Why? In general, the irreverence the book shows is what makes this book so funny. The humor is really quite biting. Unfortunately, it's also unrelenting. When the author needs to soften up (e.g., when the boss's wife dies and he subsequently falls apart) he simply can't do it.
Nonetheless, this is a great book and a super writer. Why haven't I heard of this guy before? He really deserves to be much better known.
The book is written by Wilkins as a 19 year old kid who digs graves one summer before heading back to classes. He recounts the summer months in a really creative way. I find his writing very detailed and for the first time in a long time, I actually got lost a bit and had to keep reminding myself which character was which. Not in a bad way, but because each one had such an extravagant and colored background and personality. The great thing, that I loved about this story, was that the writer really attempts to make their accents and imagery and ticks come through. From the gardener to his best friend, the reader becomes really attached to the people in the book.
The plot starts to uncurl as the graveyard goes through a strike, and sides are drawn. As Wilkins learns that the markers on a grave don't necessarily mean that the person is buried in that exact spot, and there are mysterious items floating in the quarry that has become a dumpsite of sorts. All is learned and occurs in a short but meaningful summer that is shared in an excellently written memoir.