19 September 2014

Books: Alive in Necropolis By Doug Dorst (2008)

Long time ago, when I spent 18 months living in the Bay Area, one of the joys of that era was making fun of California cities; Berkeley became Bizerkeley because of all the riots is seemed to have at the drop of hat and Colma, a small incorporated town near Daly City, a suburb of San Francisco became Coma. The funny part is that Colma was founded as a necropolis in 1924. With most of Colma's land dedicated to cemeteries, the population of the dead outnumbers the living by over a thousand to one. This has led to it being called, "the city of the silent," and also has given rise to a humorous motto, now recorded on the city's website: "It's great to be alive in Colma."

When I came across the book Alive In Necropolis by Doug Dorst and discovered it was set in Colma and that it’s plot revolved around the dead and the living of that city, I was intrigued. 

But the air was quickly let out my balloon when, as I read, Dorst sort of created a novel where none of the subplots seem to work and never, ever, merge into any cohesive narrative.

The plot revolves around these longtime cemetery for San Francisco, where they’re the resting place of the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Wyatt Earp, and aviation pioneer Lincoln Beachey. It is also the home of Michael Mercer, a rookie cop trying to go by the book as he struggles to navigate a new realm of grownup relationships—including a shaky romance with an older woman; a growing alliance with his cocky, charismatic partner, Nick Toronto; fading college friendships; and an aching sense of responsibility for a local rich kid who Mercer rescues from a dangerous prank in the cemetery. But instead of settling comfortably into adult life, Mercer becomes obsessed with the mysterious fate of his predecessor in the police unit, Sergeant Featherstone, who seems to have become confused about whether he was policing the living or the dead. And as Mercer delves deeper into Featherstone’s story, it appears that Mercer’s own sanity is beginning to slip—either that, or Colma’s more famous residents are not resting in peace as they should be.

While Dorst gives us an imaginative premise, he does little with it. While he writes extraordinarily well, he seems to build no tension between the living and the dead. As a matter of fact, the dead leave living alone, which sort of disappointed me. Why build a foundation were the dead and living can mingle, but never have the dead play any sort of perceptible role in the lives of the living and vice versa? Why does Mercer even care then what goes on in this world of the dead where these ghosts can be “killed” even more? 

Why should we? 

Dorst does a great job of writing a noir type comedy, but ultimately by trying to shoehorn a detective novel, a supernatural ghost story, a comedy and the many personal issues of all the characters, the book becomes nothing but a collection of interesting ideas that never amounts to much.

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