Review: The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larsen

The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larsen
The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larsen

The Dewey Decimal System
Nathan Larsen (twitter)
Akashic Books, 2011

When checking out The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larsen over on Amazon I found out it is part of the Akashic Urban Surreal Series. Unfortunately, beyond that Amazon listing I can’t seem to find anything about this series beyond that it sort of exists. I mean, I guess the series title sort of explains it all but a little more information on it might be nice. Indeed, before even seeing that such a series existed I don’t think I would have classified this novel as surreal. Maybe it’s the fact that my senses are so inured from years of science fiction and fantasy that my interpretation of surreal is a bit askew. I found myself thinking of The Dewey Decimal System as slightly closer to post-apocalytpic fiction than anything else, though even that wasn’t quite right.

The Dewey Decimal System takes place in the husk of a New York City that has been all but abandoned after a flu pandemic, terrorist attacks, and the collapse of Wall Street. The titular character goes by the name of Dewey Decimal a gun-for-hire who makes his home in the New York Public Library working on the side to reorganize the collection into the proper Dewey classifications. Dewey is hired by the local Distract Attorney Rosenblatt to kill a man: Ukrainian gangster and all around bad guy Ivan Shapsko. Of course that isn’t everything. This wouldn’t be a quality hard-boiled/noir tale without a femme fatale and Larsen delivers with Iveta Shapsko; Ivan’s estranged wife. Dewey isn’t the type to follow orders blindly and the notion of just doing what he told never crosses his mind. Dewey’s quest for more information on his job leads him down an ever twisting path of violence made all the more fascinating by Dewey’s own unique psyche.

As the man relates early on in the book he is somewhat sure that his mind has been messed with government types. This causes him to doubt his own memories and he views them “more as dreams” than actual memories. In addition to his questionable background Dewey exhibits a host of other behaviors that seem to indicate that he might have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder of some kind. He’ll only turn in one direction during certain times of day and he has an obsessive need for cleanliness both of his clothes (he ruins several suits over the course of the novel) and his hands (he goes through what must have been at least a gallon of hand sanitizer). He also doesn’t seem to have any sort of problem with violence. He maintains the same level of cool if he is being shot at or if he is torturing and killing a thug for information. He also seems to be able to speak and read several different languages and has likely served in the military at some point. Dewey is in truth a very likeable psychopath. The sort of character that it is entertaining to read or view from a distance but who you would never really like to meet.

The plot of The Dewey Decimal System is a twisted affair that doesn’t try too hard to make much sense or indicate what is the truth. It doesn’t linger on notions of right and wrong or justice. Absent of the eccentric main character the plot wouldn’t nearly as interesting. Well, that’s a stretch it might still be interesting but absent of Dewey I might be more critical of the murky motivations of the main players. Thankfully, Dewey and his running commentary of the people and places he visits keeps things lively and the muddied nature of the plot plays wells to Dewey’s tenuous grasp on reality. Larsen shoes a deft hand with dialogue, while not quite on par with the likes of Charlie Huston (who I still think writes the best hard-boiled/noir dialogue today) he comes awfully close. I was particularly fond of DA Rosenblatt whose unique clipped sentences lend credence to the asshole nature of the character. Larsen also manages to do quite well at mimicking Ukrainian accent through text (note: this analysis is based on brief experience in my teenage years of having worked with a Ukrainian named Vladimir; he made a pretty mean pizza).

The Dewey Decimal System is a taught new entry into the hard-boiled/noir genre with post-apocalyptic overtones that might appeal to science fiction fans. Larsen’s vision of a nearly empty New York City is comforting its familiarity and chilling in its alienness. Dewey Decimal is a refreshingly original character whose skewed perspective makes for an entertaining if occasionally disturbing read. If you’re looking for something new and interesting to read and don’t mind a little chaos and violence then The Dewey Decimal System is definitely worth a look. I for one certainly hope we’ll be seeing more Dewey Decimal in the years to come.

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