Monday, October 26, 2009

Have Mercer

I picked up "Alive in Necropolis" after hearing the author read the preface on "The Writer's Block," KQED's literary podcast. That podcast can be pretty hit-and-miss for me, but there's enough intriguing stuff in there that I keep coming back. In this case, I was struck by both the tone - a mixture of creepy and matter-of-fact - as well as the local angle. I added it to my list, and just recently finished reading it.

The author is a native of the Bay Area, and it shows. Most of the book's action takes place in Colma, an odd little town a little ways south from San Francisco. The book's first paragraph includes a sentence like the following: "Just over one thousand people live in Colma. More than one million dead people reside there." If you look up Colma on Google Maps, you'll quickly grasp the situation: the city is almost completely covered with cemeteries. For more than a century, ever since San Francisco reclaimed valuable real estate that was filled with paupers' bones, Colma has been THE major final resting place for a plurality of Bay Area residents. That said, it IS still a town, with its own mayor, police force, local politics, businesses, and residents. It's a kind of bizarre situation, and it takes a book like this to remind people who live here just how odd it is.

The author breezily uses real geographic features: street names, cities, counties, and so on. I don't think any of this will turn off people who aren't familiar with the region, but it does add an extra layer of resonance for people who live here. For example, at one point in the book we learn that a certain group of teenagers are from Burlingame. From the context, anyone can grasp what they need to know: Burlingame ain't San Francisco, it's somewhere in the suburbs, and is a relatively safe place. For people who live here, though, Burlingame will instantly conjure up a host of other associations: wealth, status, privilege, quiet, entitlement. That's a lot of mileage out of one place name.


The main hook of the story, though, is Colma, and specifically the afterlife. In the metaphysics of AiN, after people die, they continue to exist as ghosts. The ghosts obey many of the Hollywood conventions: they can see the real world, but living people cannot see them; they have only a limited ability to interact with physical objects; they never age. When people die, they will exist forever in a particular form. That form seems to be somewhat random: it isn't necessarily the body that they died in, but some people come back as much younger than others.

The dead can be hurt: they can "die" again in accidents, and can attack one another. Doing so is rather pointless, as they will be "reborn" as a ghost again shortly. There is one permanent end, though: if a ghost chews something called the Root, they will vanish forever - or at least, no longer be seen within the realm of ghosts. Root was one of the authorial inventions that I especially enjoyed. I take it for granted that it means Mandrake Root, though it is never called that by name.

The ghosts were a really interesting touch, and one that I wish Dorst had explored a little more deeply. He mainly confined himself to about a half-dozen deceased characters. There are four villains, led by the sinister Doc Barker. The strongest character is Lillie Coit, the famous philanthropist and supporter of firemen. She watches over Doc Barker's gang and tries to warn people about their actions. The other two major deceased characters are Phineas Gage, who survived an iron pipe that was driven through his skull, and a deceased daredevil aviator. It's a big group, but... well, I have a confession to make. Very early on we catch a glimpse of Emperor Norton regally presiding over a funeral. And I wanted SO BADLY for him to be a major character. Sadly, he remains strictly background, and never even speaks. Looking over the past hundred years of history, there are tons of fascinating characters who would make for terribly intriguing ghosts: wealthy capitalists like Flood and Mills; the media mogul Hearst; rock stars from the 1960's; and many more. The dead characters we do get are charming or creepy enough, but bringing the dead back to life is such a great idea, I wish we'd gotten to see more.

(As a side note - I'm now wondering whether Dorst only included the people who were actually buried in Colma, and if so, if that necessarily restricted his choices. It's possible that Colma hasn't been as popular a place to be buried recently.)

The dead are the most interesting part of the book, but the main storyline actually deals with a living cop, a rookie on the Colma force named Mercer, referred to on the radio as Boy Thirteen. Mercer was a great character, and we get to know him well throughout the book. He's trying to find meaning in his life, and thinks that he's found it in policing. However, he still carries a lot of uncertainty and self-doubt with him; he constantly analyzes himself and his own decisions, and has trouble enjoying what he has. He's a grown-up who seems to have not fully grown up yet.

Mercer gets a majority of the POV chapters, but plenty go to supporting characters as well, and they are also worth knowing. I won't list everyone here, but we get a great mixture of personalities and roles. Late in the book, we get to see how a particularly messed-up teenage girl thinks, and it's creepily impressive. We can hear the storyline that she tells about herself, and compare that to the reality of what she does to others.

Oddly enough, even though this book is nominally a detective story and is filled with dead people, the actual crime feels relatively tame. Well, maybe not tame - the main crime that opens the book does seem really horrible - but still: in a world where seemingly every mystery novel features murder, kidnapping, or other heinous crimes, this one boils down to a group of kids being incredibly stupid and taking dangerous risks. I think that this is actually a strength of the book: by trying for less, it achieves more. The victim is still alive, and Dorst milks his gradual and evolving reaction to the crime, which allows for more psychological playfulness than would have been possible in a more conventional straight-up murder story.

Plus, as local readers know, anything like that that happened on the Peninsula WOULD be the most important local story for months. Yeah, thinks are kind of dull around here sometimes.

This seems to be Dorst's first novel, and it kind of shows. There are a few interesting plot lines that he raises which never go anywhere. I kept waiting to meet Jude's gay friend, but he disappears from the book and we never see him. Lorna's financial troubles are interesting and touching, but don't seem to play into the main storyline at all. The bit with Mercer's mother in Tahiti seems like a big deus ex machina.

Maybe I'm being too hard on the book, though. After all, there are other things that don't directly contribute to the Mercer storyline that I still loved. Almost all of Toronto's saga, and especially his relationship with Mia, is superfluous to the plot outside of establishing how much more inhibited Mercer is. Still, Toronto's an intriguing guy, and I enjoyed watching him rage, rule, fall apart, and rebuild himself. Similarly, the bit with Gage's iron never gets closure, but I liked the plaintive quality it lent to the story.

Altogether, the feeling was a bit like reading The Big U, but at the beginning of an author's career instead of after it had been established. TBU was a fascinating and fun mess of a book, careening all over the place and dropping plot lines as frequently as it blew my mind. I don't think that Dorst is another Stephenson, but I owe him the same allowances I gave that book.


Alive in Necropolis is well worth checking out. It's a fun mixture of mystery novel and character study, with lots of supernatural action and San Francisco Bay Area lore tossed in for people who enjoy that stuff. Its structure is a tad rough, but it's still eminently readable and a lot of fun.

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