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Coming of age among the dead

When Andrew Meredith was 14, his dad did something he shouldn't have done. We don't ever really find out what, just that it had to do with the female students at La Salle University, where he taught English.

The Removers

By Andrew Meredith

Scribner. 256 pp. $24

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Reviewed by Katie Haegele

When Andrew Meredith was 14, his dad did something he shouldn't have done. We don't ever really find out what, just that it had to do with the female students at La Salle University, where he taught English.

Whatever it was - sexual harassment or just an ill-advised affair - it had a stultifying effect on his entire family. He was fired, and no one ever talked about why, and he went on to spend the next several years locked in a tense, terse marriage while his two children looked on.

But The Removers, the author's attempt to make peace with his family trauma, actually opens years after all this went down. We meet young Andrew at age 22, the evening he goes on his first "removal."

You see, after his fall from grace, his father got kind of a weird job in the funeral industry - not because of any family connection with the business, just as a way to pay the bills. And poor Andrew, feeling listless and needing some cash, gets roped into doing his first of many gigs as a funeral home remover.

Removers are the guys who come to take the body away, and depending on the scene they're faced with when they get there, the work can be scary, depressing, or stomach-turning. But it's one of the few really necessary jobs a person can do, and in Meredith's deft hands, it's fascinating to read about.

The first half of this book, which is Meredith's first, is basically flawless. With a mordant sense of humor and poet's eye for detail, he puts us square in the middle of his story - a story that takes place along the Delaware River in Frankford, just blocks from where his parents grew up, and their parents before them, going all the way back to the great-great-whoevers who lived there when most of the area was still farmland.

Andrew's dad, a professor and a published poet, nearly made it out of the neighborhood as a young man, but he stayed and raised his family there, for the usual mix of complicated reasons. Though this is Andrew's story and not his father's, we get the sense that his dad felt limited by the neighborhood as much as he loved it, and that this conflict cast a long shadow over the family. It's hard to imagine any native Philadelphian not finding this aspect of Meredith's story fascinating and familiar, to a more or less equal extent.

In fact, it's the writer's evocation of Philadelphia - and in particular, the Irish Catholic environment of Frankford - that makes his book sing, and the place where the grimness of his work and the toughness of his city meet is where his language really takes flight.

"The dead body picker-upper, he accepts what life brings," Meredith muses as he rolls down Tulip Street on his way home from a removal. "He's not out evangelizing for salad greens and thirty minutes of cardio. He's not caught up fighting the unfightable. He doesn't turn his anxiety into fake-hustle like a New Yorker. He accepts. He's a model phlegmatic, like William Penn. He is a Philadelphian by nature. You're dead and you need a lift."

It happens that the dissolution of Meredith's family coincides with the changes in their neighborhood. As his parents erect an unscalable emotional wall between them, the local shop owners put inch-thick bullet-proof Plexiglass in their windows. Using the city as his canvas, Meredith creates the image of an entire life in decline.

More than decay, though, Meredith fears stasis. What if he gets stuck doing this creepy job forever? What if he turns out like his father, a womanizer who's lost the trust of those closest to him? Meredith obsessively chronicles his early encounters with girls, worrying that his dad's less admirable tendencies were somehow passed down genetically. As he takes us through the trajectory of his grief and anxiety, he makes heavy weather of some pretty minor incidents, and adopts an attitude of puffed-up self-importance that briefly chases away the brutal self-awareness that makes the rest of the book so successful. Readers will cheer for Meredith when he finally grows the heck up, and discovers that the creepy things he's experienced have also been the most worthwhile, and have turned him into the kind of stand-up guy any father would be proud of.

With its lyrical language and strong sense of place The Removers is rollicking fun, even when what it's describing is ghastly - and with its East Coast-gothic backdrop, it practically begs to be translated into a film. Young Andrew sneaking a cigarette on his parents' front steps as the El rattles by, listening to his Walkman and wondering if he'll ever be able to make a life for himself that's different from the one he knows: I can picture it. Can't you?