Novelist wakes the dead only to bury them in subplots
12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, August 31, 2008
If Colma, Calif., didn't already exist, a novelist would have to make it up. A town of just 2 square miles on the outskirts of San Francisco, Colma has served as the de facto burial ground for San Francisco since the early 20th century. Its population is more than 2 million, though only 2,000 of them are living.
Doug Dorst, a professor of creative writing at St. Edward's University in Austin, has picked this nicely noirish locale for his first novel.
Alive in Necropolis starts, as a book about a city of graves must, with death: Wesley Featherstone, a 27-year vet of the police force, has a heart attack in his cruiser. Eight months later, Michael Mercer, 30-year-old slacker turned cop discovers another body, that of Jude, the teenage son of a famous movie director, bound, naked and stuffed headfirst into a tomb. The boy is barely alive but won't say what happened.
There is a connection, and the dead know what it is, but they too aren't talking. They have their own problems to contend with: Doc Barker, a criminal who died in 1939 while escaping from Alcatraz, and his gang are terrorizing other ghosts, robbing and humiliating them at knifepoint.
Soon, Mercer, who has befriended Featherstone's widow, inherits boxes of police reports chronicling Featherstone's encounters with these phantasms. Mercer begins to see how the worlds of the living and the living dead commingle.
On the surface, Alive in Necropolis has so much going for it, in particular the great setting and colorful characters. Yet Mr. Dorst is a restless storyteller, and the book caroms between being a police procedural, a ghost story, a coming-of-age tale and a horror novel. As such, it ends up delivering a little too much of everything, be it people, subplots or metaphors.
His incorporation of some of the historical personages buried in Colma, such as baseball player Lefty O'Doul, Lillie Coit who built San Francisco's Coit Tower, daredevil aviator Lincoln Beachey, as characters is an intriguing conceit, but they never quite – there's no other way to say it – come to life and their presence feels almost dutiful, as if research was done that couldn't be wasted.
Meanwhile, the living characters are reduced to types against which Mercer measures himself: They include Mercer's girlfriend Fiona, a 43-year-old ER nurse with a dying cat; his best cop buddy Toronto, a wisecracking lothario turned married man turned Zen practitioner; and a coterie of same-age San Francisco friends who nicely divide up into hipsters, careerists and homemakers.
By the end, it all reads like a grand existential metaphor, something about death in the midst of life and life in midst of death. While this may be a worthy philosophical point, it snuffs the vitality out of the novel.
This is one story that gets buried alive by the author's ambition to make the book more meaningful.
Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.