Alive in Necropolis

( 10 )

Overview

A "dark and funny debut"(Seattle-Times) about a young police officer struggling to maintain a sense of reality in a town where the dead outnumber the living.

Colma, California, the "cemetery city" serving San Francisco, is the resting place of the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Wyatt Earp, and William Randolph Hearst. It is also the home of Michael Mercer, a by-the-book rookie cop struggling to settle comfortably into adult life. Instead, he becomes obsessed with the mysterious fate of ...

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Alive in Necropolis

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Overview

A "dark and funny debut"(Seattle-Times) about a young police officer struggling to maintain a sense of reality in a town where the dead outnumber the living.

Colma, California, the "cemetery city" serving San Francisco, is the resting place of the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Wyatt Earp, and William Randolph Hearst. It is also the home of Michael Mercer, a by-the-book rookie cop struggling to settle comfortably into adult life. Instead, he becomes obsessed with the mysterious fate of his predecessor, Sergeant Wes Featherstone, who spent his last years policing the dead as well as the living. As Mercer attempts to navigate the drama of his own daily life, his own grip on reality starts to slip-either that, or Colma's more famous residents are not resting in peace as they should be.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A daring and big-hearted first novel...Like Dashiell Hammett, Dorst conveys a hard-bitten love of the physical San Francisco."
-New York Times Book Review

"In the same way Buffy the Vampire Slayer mixed high school and bloodsuckers, Doug Dorst combines cops and ghosts in his Alive in Necropolis. The result is a haunted variation on Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series...Imaginative and accomplished... Pitch-perfect."
-USA Today

"Rich, unsettling...truly haunting."
-San Francisco Chronicle "An intriguing mix of coming-of-age story, police procedural, and magical realism."
-Seattle-Times

Stephen Elliott
It would be a shame if Doug Dorst is written of as one of the best debut novelists we've seen in years. He's better than that. He's one of the best novelists we've seen in years, writing well beyond the level we've learned to expect of ‘first novelists' or ‘new voices.' He has the control and daring possessed by only the greats of each generation. He writes with humor and wisdom that is rare, and an empathy for his characters that is warm and complex and unique. (Stephen Elliott, author of Happy Baby)
Mark Costello
The left brain of this novel, the plotty, structured part, is a fine, familiar branch of California noir. Like Dashiell Hammett, Dorst conveys a hard-bitten love of the physical San Francisco, the fog-swallowed town, the sun after rain, the mineshaft drops in temperature. Scenes are rooted in surroundings and the weather. The fiction seems to possess, and be possessed by, its beloved Bay…The ghosts are a prime pleasure here. The prose picks up a quickness in their presence. They are figures out of newsreels, colorful, iconic.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

This charming first novel maps the landscape and lives of a small town where ghosts and the living are sometimes indistinguishable from one another. That's what police officer Michael Mercer discovers the night he saves the life of a teenage boy left unconscious and at the mercy of the elements in a Colma, Calif., cemetery. Later, Michael witnesses nocturnal incidents that turn out to be the afterlife activities of local residents who've been dead for decades. The repetitive and unresolved activities of the dead slyly parallel Michael's aimless life and the lives of friends and colleagues similarly mired in day-to-day routine. Though the supernatural elements aren't as well integrated into the main action as they might be, Dorst strikes a perfect balance between humor and pathos. His ability to show the magic potential of everyday lives marks him as an author to watch. (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Dorst's appealing debut features rookie cop Mike Mercer patrolling Colma, Calif., famed cemetery city in which the dead outnumber the living by a thousand to one. Shortly after he joins the force, Mercer discovers a teen victimized by a vicious prank: drugged, stripped from the waist down, duct-taped and stashed headfirst in a burial chamber. This is Jude DiMaio, well-meaning but impetuous son of a film director, and his story gets entwined with that of Mercer, whose romantic missteps are in many ways parallel. Other principals are Mercer's girlfriend, Fiona, a nurse many years his elder, and her potential rival, Kelly, a fun-loving journalist; Mercer's partner, Nick Toronto, behind whose barbed wit and aggressive facade lurks a softie; and a group of Mercer's privileged high-school friends, all groping bit by bit, as Mike is, toward maturity. Dorst nimbly juggles multiple plot lines and a complicated cast, and his account of the banter and brotherhood of cops rings true. Where the novel gets into trouble is in the daring subplot that might have been its triumph: Mercer gradually becomes aware that his predecessor, Officer Featherstone, had been waging a stealth campaign against-well, against a gang of hooligan ghosts who are terrorizing the other corpses. In Colma, whether he wants it or not, a peace officer turns out to have jurisdiction, too, over those who ought to be resting in peace rather than disturbing it. This gang of the undead commits acts of mayhem, but it's hard to take these acts seriously, given that the wounds they inflict mostly heal overnight and that Dorst often plays their antics for laughs. Ultimately, despite its promise, this story line seems mostly asideshow, overshadowed by the coming-of-age plot. A bit diffuse and too reliant on coincidence, but also often poignant and funny, especially about the self-destructive fools that love makes us. Dorst is a talent to watch.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594483820
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/2/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 341,804
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Doug Dorst

Doug Dorst is the author of three books, most recently the novel S, which he co-authored with J. J. Abrams. He is the author of the novel Alive in Necropolis, which was honored as San Francisco’s 2009 One City One Book selection and as a runner-up for the 2009 PEN/Hemingway, Shirley Jackson, and IAFA/Crawford Awards, and a short story collection, The Surf Guru. His stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, ZYZZYVA, and other journals. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a three-time Jeopardy! champion, Dorst lives in Austin and teaches writing at Texas State University in San Marcos.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

“A daring and big-hearted first novel...Like Dashiell Hammett, Dorst conveys a hard-bitten love of the physical San Francisco.” —New York Times Book Review

Welcome to the “cemetery city” of Colma, California—but don’t expect to rest in peace.

The final resting place of San Francisco’s most prominent citizens—including Joe DiMaggio, Wyatt Earp, William Randolph Hearst, and other luminaries—sleepy Colma has an eager new patrolman in by-the-book rookie cop Michael Mercer. Consumed with unraveling the mysterious fate—and paperwork—of his predecessor, Mercer quickly becomes enmeshed in the disputes still raging among undead. Meanwhile, Mercer becomes the star of a high profile case (among the living—and notorious) that introduces him to even more outlandish demands and complicated politics. Struggling to maintain his balance between his newly-found adult responsibilities, complicated love life, and increasingly dramatic night beat, Mercer worries his own connection to reality is beginning to slip away.

“Doug Dorst combines cops and ghosts in his Alive in Necropolis. The result is a haunted variation on Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series…Imaginative and accomplished…Pitch-perfect.” —USA Today

“[A] smart and accessibly unconventional first novel...Shot through with streaks of black humor to vivid, insightful effect...Alive in Necropolis proves truly haunting.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“An intriguing mix of coming-of-age story, police procedural, and magical realism.”

Seattle-Times

ABOUT DOUG DORST

A long-time resident of San Francisco, Doug Dorst now lives in Austin, Texas where he teaches creative writing at St. Edward’s University. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, Epoch, and other journals, as well as in the anthology Politically Inspired. He is also a former Jeopardy! champion.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • In modern cities, there is a necessary coexistence between the living and the dead—both sharing the same physical space. Paris, with its underground catacombs, is another example. How might this affect the psychic landscape of the place and its inhabitants? What is the impact of always having this shadow, a ghost of the idea of death, fixed in one’s rear view mirror?
  • Mercer finds his path to policehood after a few abandoned careers, a late bloomer in the most sincere sense. What influences his decision and draws him to this position? And how does his dedication or motivation change over the course of the novel—what is his reason for staying on such an unusual beat?
  • The banter among the Colma police force becomes a true star force in the novel—alternately exuberant, playful, politically incorrect, naughty, and amusing. How does this inside slice of police life add to the flow of the storytelling and our experience of it? What insights are gained through listening in?
  • Lillie Hitchcock Coit. Phineas Gage. Lincoln Beachley. Did you find the author’s choice to reanimate some of San Francisco’s most famous (or infamous) residents convincing? If so, what made them so convincing? Do you think the effect would be the same if the author had used non-historical characters? Did their dimensionality/violence/obsessions surprise you?
  • Why do you think the ghosts remain restless—and what keeps them in this searching, limbo state? What do you think “The Root” is?
  • Who is actually “alive in the necropolis” of Colma? Those living fully without regret, those choosing to “die like an aviator”? Might the author be trying to say something about what the point of living might actually be, and the importance of the bonds we make?
  • Mercer struggles deeply with, and is hypersensitive to, the idea of living a “mediocre” life— he worries about falling short (or settling for less) in his love life, especially versus Owen’s success, about his choice of apartments, about his career path. Jude shares the same preoccupation—though struggles in his own teenage, self-destructive way. How does this set them up for their intersecting journeys? What happens to those, like Fiona perhaps, who have come to embrace just exactly what life presents them, mediocre or non-perfect as it is?
  • Why do you think Mercer begins to see and hear the dead? What is it about his state of mind that makes him a candidate? Why might Featherstone have been targeted as well?
  • When we meet Sergeant Featherstone he is already deceased, and it is through his grieving wife’s anecdotes and the stacks of unprocessed police reports she presents to Mike that we get a sense of his trials. Through this unique device we come to learn not only the crimes and misdemeanors of Colma’s ghost population but of Wes’ own regrets in his life. What else do we gain as readers though this exposition?
  • “Shut up and die like an aviator” is an ever-present mantra throughout the novel—repeated by members of the squad, and through Beachley’s actions among others. Do you feel there could be another mantra (or theme) in the novel that comes to the forefront and has resonance?
  • How does Mercer’s constant awareness of “The Book”—his conduct laws—influence his actions in the story? What steers his decisions to follow them or not? Why does he bend the rules when he does—and what are the consequences? (Might this make him more human in our eyes—or less of a “perfect” cop?)
  • What is it about Mercer’s character that draws other needy characters toward him, and to trust and depend on him? Who are Mercer’s protectors or guardians in the story?
  • Mercer’s absent father functions as yet another looming ghost in the novel—one that everyone but Mercer sees on the street and is touched by. What might that tell us about what Mercer chooses to acknowledge, see in his own life? What have been the consequences of this for him?
  • The crescendo of desperation at the end of the novel—of desperate people, of desperate acts, everyone losing control—is particularly hard-hitting for the reader. Especially in the case of Toronto, Jude, and Fiona, everyone has given up the reins as Mercer struggles to put his life back in focus. Were you shocked by any of these particular breakdowns?
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 11 of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2008

    Great read, solid writing

    Let me just begin with an exceprt of the publisher¿s description of the book, as I don¿t think I can describe the premise of ¿Alive in Necropolis¿ nearly as well as they do: 'Colma, California, is the only incorporated city in America where the dead outnumber the living. The longtime cemetery for San Francisco, it is 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 grown-up relationships¿ 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¿' This is not a typical description of the books I read. It sounds like an odd cross of mystery and fantasy. I read almost nothing in the mystery genre and not much in the fantasy genre, and there mainly in young adult fantasy. However, I figured that I had a review copy and I might as well give it a chance, branch out a bit. I am extremely glad that I decided to be openminded about this book! Surprisingly, the whole `policing the dead¿ aspect turned out to be less prevalent than expected. ¿Alive in Necropolis¿ was more about relationships, about being `alive¿ in this city most notable for graveyards. I was quite impressed with Dorst¿s skill, particularly as this is his first novel. I figured that the book would feature some ridiculously inventive plot that would excuse a lack of substantial writing. This wasn¿t remotely true. Yes, there was a fantastic aspect to the plot, but this book was primarily made by the writing. Dorst gave his main character(s) in particular a good deal of depth and was able to show the reader this depth through the actions and reactions of the characters. I would recommend this book for those who love good, solid, well-written fiction, fantasy fans or not.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2008

    Alive in Necropolis

    Colma, CA has 1200 living residents and 2 million residents already dead. 'No one knows for sure what (the dead) do - if they do anything but lie mute, immobile, decaying - but some of the living have their suspicions.' So starts the story of Officer Michael Mercer, Colma Badge 13. Mercer feels that his life is heading in the right direction - a new job, a new girlfriend, and now hailed a local hero for saving the life of the teenaged son (Jude) of a famous film director. However, Colma's dead have also taken an interest in Mercer because, unlike most of Colma's other residents, he is able to both see and hear them. After Mercer receives 4 boxes of questionable incident reports from the widow of Officer Featherstone, the man he replaced on the Colma police force, he begins to recognize his unusual link with the dead and realize this 'communication' was something he had in common with Featherstone. Mercer soon finds himself saddled not only with Jude's case to solve, but also the pursuit of 'Doc' Barker and his gang of ghostly thugs who are harassing the deceased population of Colma. The real question is, if Mercer will be able to actually defeat 'Doc' Barker or if he will suffer the same fate as his predecessor, Featherstone. On the whole, Alive in Necropolis is a wonderfully entertaining read. The author does a fantastic job of bringing all of his characters fully to life - even when they're dead.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 9, 2008

    FABULOUS

    This novel is wonderful. I cannot believe it is a first book for the writer. It is one of, if not the best debut I've read. The writter has many story-lines happening at once, and he does an excellent job of tying it up at the end. I LOVED THIS BOOK!!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2014

    There is a lot of inside jokes in this book, such as one person

    There is a lot of inside jokes in this book, such as one person wanting to move to Mendocino - a small town in Nor Cal famous for potheads and growers, then details the horror of ghost paranoia abroad in Calmo. 

    A police officer whose college-minded friends continue to smoke weed and an affluent heroin addict are some of the characters in this book.

    It's been awhile since I picked up this book so I don't want to scruff up the paragraph about the 500-page novel that I can remember, but it was hard to follow along through the sometimes maze-like direction of the book. I do recall the bullying ghosts being particularly humorous though. It looks like the author has gone on to write two more novels.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2012

    Sadly disappointed

    I was really excited to read this book because my husband works in Colma, but about the only thing positive about this book is that the author is a great descriptive writer. There were too many storylines none of which really made any sense as a whole. I'm mostly disappointed because I feel this book had great potential, but the author needs to learn how to focus on the story he was trying to tell as a whole.

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  • Posted September 1, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    The author could have done so much more with this town...

    I suppose I was expecting something different from a story set in a California cementary town. Looking back, if the author wanted to get rid of the ghost plotline, he could have just thrown out some sections about ghosts without having to do much editing on the rest of the book and without loosing much of the volume. I have no idea why it's even there, seeing how the major part of the book is dedicated to personal drama. Every once in a while, the main character would see a ghost, but then he is not sure what to make of it and does not really care because he has too much going on in his personal life.
    So if you want a story about relationships, this is a good book about age difference, growing up, teenage love obsessions, finding out what you really want in life, etc. And it has an awesome cat named Criket. But if you are looking for a ghost story, don't try this one, because the whole supernatral plotline serves as a rather bleak background here.

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  • Posted March 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    I read this thinking it would be a potentially amusing and maybe scary story about a living person fighting off the bad guys that terrorize the local cemetery. Sort of like "The Frighteners."

    I did not want a story that constantly slaps you in the face with do what you love, live your life, and if you don't like who and where you are, change it. Guess which story I got. It quickly became boring and melancholy reading about a character who is just hovering in the status quo surrounded by other characters full of regret. Very blah.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 15, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2008

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