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 façade 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 a sideshow, 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.