The most potent ghosts in Doug Dorst’s debut novel Alive in Necropolis are the spectres of regret that haunt protagonist Mike Mercer. Mercer is that kind of pushing-thirtysomething whom we’ve all known―or been―grinding through wage-slave temp work, shuttling from periods of unintentional celibacy to codependent non-relationships, and drifting listlessly away from friends who’ve found their niches in the adult world of mortgages, 401ks, and families.
Those of us who came of age during the thwarted optimism of the Bush years will recognize ourselves in Mercer, whose desire to live a more meaningful life leads him to police work: “…maybe it would be enough to be a good cop, well-intentioned and effective. It dawned on him that he really could be a cop if wanted to, and then it dawned on him that he’d had this revelation while eating a donut, and if that wasn’t a sign, he didn’t know what was.”
There is something touching about the casual smallness of this moment; Dorst makes his characters’ inner lives rich with an intimacy that is distinctly personal yet immediately accessible. That Dorst achieves this resonance for every voice in this densely-populated novel―from Jude, the excruciatingly sensitive teenager Mercer rescues in the opening chapter, to Fiona, Mercer’s more off-than-on-again girlfriend―is no small feat.The land of the living is Dorst’s fertile ground. While investigating Jude’s case, Mercer strikes a tentative, though genuine, friendship with the boy. Mercer’s odd-duck status among his fellow cops and his college friends alike is mirrored by Jude’s quintessentially teenage need for acceptance―even if that acceptance entails protecting those who tied him up, jammed him in a drain-pipe, and left him for dead.
The narrative toggles between Mercer and Jude, with vignettes from Mercer’s partner, Nick Toronto, who functions as a sort of wry sage, spiced in. Toronto’s disaffected machismo is the ideal balance to Mercer’s naked emotionality. Still, Toronto is much more than a nod to the hard-boiled cops of an Ed McBain novel. These characters come to feel like friends (and, like real friends, you occasionally want to slap sense into them), which makes the supernatural subplot even more frustrating. It’s not enough for Mercer to be a sensitive guy fumbling toward contentment, he’s got to see dead people.
The ghosts of famous aviator Lincoln Beachy, heiress Lillie Coit, and sideshow head-liner Phineas Cage recruit Mercer to vanquish―once and for all―the nefarious Barker gang, who terrorize their fellow dead with impunity. But the ghosts are almost like sitcom sidekicks, there to offer comic relief and a few “attaboys.” These deadworld sections never assume a narrative drive, mostly because they’re too brusquely paced. Mercer never engages with this motley crew in present action, all we see are his tersely-worded police reports after the fact. They lack the emotional heft to persuade us that Mercer’s redemption resides in bringing peace to the departed. Compared to the gem-like precision with which the flesh-and-blood characters are rendered, the novel’s flashiest conceit―that Colma’s dead aren’t so dormant―seems just plain gimmicky.
The real menace here isn’t otherworldly, it’s everyday inertia: “He’d simply been lost. He was years removed from college…his friends were finding jobs they cared about and women they loved and places to travel to, and Mercer could feel their attachments to each other slackening…Spooked by a creeping sense of his own irrelevance…he was getting dark-minded and hopeless in a way he feared might be permanent.” This sense of slipping from the world is far scarier than literal death. There comes a point in our late-twenties when we (however unconsciously) stop counting our age by chronological years, but by years away from thirty. Once this countdown begins, we start tallying up the absences.
Mercer’s sometime-lover, Fiona, is the character who most allows herself to live in these hollow spaces. Her seething need for commitment is a stark contrast to Mercer’s paralyzing ambivalence, and her descent into stalker ex-girlfriend territory is deeply sad. Dorst seems to suggest that the middle path―engaging with the world, but knowing when to let go―is the wisest one. He even brings Buddhism into play via the “Zazen” classes Mercer’s partner attends. Mercer asks Toronto if he believes in literal ghosts: “Toronto takes a few seconds to think. ‘In the Zen tradition there are things called hungry ghosts. They’ve got empty, bloated stomachs and narrow throats. Always hungry and never satisfied…You invite them in and feed them. You show compassion.”
This passage achingly enacts what it means to be haunted. Anyone stumbling out of their twenties without a career they’re passionate about, a lasting love, or even enough heartbreak to tell a good story will wince knowingly at Mercer’s mistakes. The barbed teeth of his ghosts tear through our thick skins to reveal the raw-nerve tenderness of being alive.