Review: “The Dewey Decimal System” by Nathan Larson

Review by Emily Goldsher

Nathan Larson
The Dewey Decimal System
Akashic Books, 252 p.

(Mr. Larson will be appearing this Thursday at WORD as part of our Civic Pride series.  Info and RSVP here)

Nathan Larson’s debut novel, The Dewey Decimal System, fits snugly into the cache of dystopian novels that use their strange predicament as a background, and not the focus of the novel.  Like William Gibson’s 1984 masterpiece, Neuromancer, Larson is more interested in the life and trials of his protagonist Dewey, than he is in explaining what caused the ruin of New York City.  This particular choice on the author’s point serves the novel well, letting the rotting, stinking corpse of Manhattan be a breathing background for a much more vibrant story of intrigue and deception.

Of course, the book is not without humor: Dewey Decimal (a preposterous name for a man) is the exact opposite of what you’d expect from a hardboiled assassin.  He’s cowardly and weak, often confused and mostly disinterested in his work aside from the freedom it provides him.  He dispatches thug after thug with the consideration one might give to crushing an ant underfoot; unflinchingly and with little concern.  Still, Larson’s vivid style easily gives us a Tarantino-ian array of scenes of Dewey, a gun in each hand, acting like a stone cold badass.  It is only Dewey’s inner monologue that reveals his sensitive, almost-childlike regard for the violence he perpetuates.

Destroying New York City is a bold pursuit for a debut novel, but Larson has done it with this one, giving us a meticulously relayed map of Manhattan throughout the book, but with few facts regarding the disaster that caused such chaos and destruction.  We know only a few things, like that only one bridge remains functional, that the subway is for city and federal employees only, and are left to imagine the rest.  That blankness adds to the dreamlike feel of the prose, giving us the same limited, hazy experience that Dewey himself scrambles to untangle.

The book is an especially savory treat if you are geographically familiar with New York City, as Larson goes into much detail as to the location and space where each scene is set.  I wonder if someone not from New York would appreciate the extra space devoted to such description, but for me it was delightful to see places I know so well fall into apocalyptic ruin.  Morbid?  Sure, but if that’s your thing, than The Dewey Decimal System is for you.