'Alive in Necropolis' by Doug Dorst

Alive in Necropolis

A Novel

Doug Dorst

Riverhead: 440 pp., $25.95

Real estate means a lot in America -- ask the Indians. Or ask some of the first white Californians to be displaced by gentrification. They can't answer, being dead. In 1900, San Francisco outlawed burials within city boundaries. Too much money could be made buying and selling land to waste it on the departed. The dead would have to find somewhere else to forever lay their heads.

Californians have never been famous for confronting mortality with grace: Fourteen years later, San Francisco declared the remaining graves "a menace and detriment to the health and welfare of city dwellers" and issued eviction notices to deceased residents who had found their way beneath the city's increasingly valuable topsoil before the century had turned. Over the next three decades, tens of thousands were exhumed and reinterred a few miles down the peninsula in the small town of Colma, "The City of the Silent." Colma now boasts 17 cemeteries for humans and one for pets, more than a million dead inhabitants and about 1,200 whose hearts still beat. William Randolph Hearst is buried there. So are Wyatt Earp, Joe DiMaggio and Tina Turner's dog. The town's motto: "It's great to be alive in Colma."

This is fertile ground, if you'll excuse the pun, for a novelist to explore the relationship between the living and the dead, the shadow cast by the latter on the former, the role each plays in the others', er, lives. How do we live with those who've come before us? How do they live through us? Where do they end and we begin?

Doug Dorst's "Alive in Necropolis" opens with promise. The sun rises over Colma. A golfer takes his first swing of the day, unaware that the "Bermuda grass and fescue" underfoot hide a potter's field where San Francisco's poor were buried in unmarked graves. "It never occurs to him that the brownish scuff on his ball did not come from a tree or a rock or a log, but from a misshapen human skull coughed up by the shifting earth of the fault-lined valley."

Skip ahead a few months to Michael Mercer, a rookie Colma police officer on patrol in Cypress Lawn cemetery. He rescues a teenage boy he finds bound with duct tape and wedged headfirst into an empty crypt, naked from the waist down. Or, more accurately given that position, from the waist up. To be precise, as Mercer's wisecracking partner, Nick Toronto, puts it, "Subject lacks any kind of trouser." The boy is hypothermic but nonetheless "alive-ish." Mercer has saved his life.

Despite that brief success, Mercer has his problems. He's a bit aimless, a bit hapless, a bit timid and every now and then he sees dead people. They talk to him too. This bothers him somewhat but doesn't seem to freak him out. Life goes on. He tries to counsel young Jude, the boy from the graveyard, blunders through a lukewarm relationship with an older woman and a passionate crush on a younger one, envies his more successful friends, endures his colleagues' endless put-downs over post-shift beers at a dive called the Death's Door. And he discovers a sheaf of unfiled police reports written by Sgt. Wesley Featherstone, who died of a heart attack while sitting in his patrol car in Cypress Lawn. Featherstone, he learns, saw dead people too. And they saw him.

All is not well among Colma's defunct. Ghosts steal Chesterfields by the carton from convenience stores, but more sinister crimes are afoot. Arthur "Doc" Barker, the bank robber and kidnapper who was killed trying to escape from Alcatraz in 1939, has recruited a gang of underworld miscreants to sow fear behind the cemetery gates. Drunk on "daisy-petal pruno," they rob, maim and even murder the departed. The dead can apparently be made more dead if forced to eat something known only as "the Root," which dispatches them to some even remoter zone of the hereafter, leaving behind scorched earth and a vague scent of sauerkraut.

The afterlife is thus envisioned as a cartoonish version of this mortal coil. Dorst renders death almost as a disease, an odd mental illness with unfortunate somatic side effects, like disfigurement and selective invisibility. Barker had the "bad luck to get stuck with the body he had at the instant he'd died," which is to say, with half his face blown off.

The dead are obsessive-compulsive, somewhat delusional. The early aviator Lincoln Beachey builds airplanes and attempts and re-attempts the stunt that ended his life. He crashes again and again, then optimistically starts over. Doc Barker shaves off his fingerprints each day, trying to erase the evidence that got hismother (Arizona "Ma" Barker) and brother Fred killed in a shootout with the feds.This is vaguely creepy but only in a Scooby-Doo sort of way. Dorst is not out to frighten here.

"Alive in Necropolis" spends relatively little time with Colma's dead, instead stringing out subplots involving the living. Mercer makes a mess of things with Fiona and doesn't do much better with Kelly. Mia breaks Toronto's heart. Young Jude will do anything for Reyna, and does. Mrs. Featherstone has a gambling problem. All of this is pretty humdrum and doesn't add up to much. Life is like that, of course, but this is fiction.

In the end, Dorst does little with the imaginative opportunities his premise provides. He writes well but neglects to build enough tension between the worlds of the living and the dead. For the most part, the dead leave the living alone. They play no discernible role in the lives of any of the characters other than Mercer. We never learn why Mercer cares what goes on in their shadowy realm or why we should. Why not follow the gospel imperative and let the dead bury their own? What does it matter if the dead are getting deader?

For most of the book, Mercer doesn't appear to worry, except occasionally for his sanity. He decides to take on Barker's gang only about two-thirds of the way in. Eventually, he organizes a posse of concerned corpses and goes after the evil ghosts. "Everything depends on this," he says, "everything depends on me." At that point, though, it's hard to believe him or to know what's at stake at all. *

Ben Ehrenreich is the author of the novel "The Suitors."