Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dorst Delivers Deathly Surprise

I went to see Doug Dorst read when Alive in Necropolis came out, got my copy in hardcover, had him autograph it, and reminded him of who I was—a former student from his days at Stanford. “Bruce,” he wrote, “Keep it up – Can’t wait to read more of your stuff!” Doug's a good chap.

But then it took me a long time—could it be 3 years??—to finally crack this thing and read it. I had tried once, as I recall, but the hook didn’t get set. This time, however, no such problem. I was drawn in from the first scene.

I guess the short version is, Alive in Necropolis surprised me. For some reason, I was expecting something like a romp, with the living dead in some form or another appearing on nearly every page. But what I got instead was a multi-layered tale of love, longing, and belonging, set squarely in the very real modern world. That last one, belonging, is one of my favorite subjects in fiction, as it is for many of us who have struggled both to be a part of something larger than ourselves, and also to derive comfort instead of anxiety from that something when we find it. In Necropolis, the protagonist, Mike Mercer, thinks he finds that something in police work. As a member of the Colma Police Department, he is able to free himself from the wagging tail of his twenties by applying himself, as many young soldiers do, to something structured and demanding. He believes he has found himself, but finds to his growing consternation that love and meaning are also important, and in these arenas, he meets one failure after another. Against such forces, the structure and consistency of police work are no match, and Mike is forced in the end to look hard at himself, to be ruthless, to find and deal with the human connections—connections he had gotten into the habit of pushing away—that will truly give his life meaning.

Interestingly, while the dead are there in Necropolis, acting throughout the story as Mike’s antagonists and allies, their presence and the story within the story that they convey do little more than reinforce and complicate the real struggle, a struggle that could have and would have ensued with or without them. In the end, in fact, just as one is beginning to wonder whether they were ever there at all or just a figment of Mike’s imagination, the dead appear in a closing scene that seems designed to assert their presence and their role in the story—and, perhaps, their role in many other stories happening in and around Colma. A minor, minor character—one who has appeared only twice in the entire novel to that point—holds his girlfriend in his arms and waits for them. “He hopes they’re not bound for Boston,” Dorst writes, “because he likes having them here, and he can’t wait to share his discovery—his secret—with Mindy.”

Alive in Necropolis is a story of discovery, of love, of longing and belonging, but don’t shy away, because it’s also one hell of a lot of fun to read.

Interesting links:

Doug’s website

Penguin Books Reading Guide for Alive in Necropolis

Mark Costello’s review of Necropolis in the New York Times

Doug’s latest book, The Surf Guru – Stories, on Amazon

Robin Romm’s review of The Surf Guru in the New York Times