Akashic Books, 252 pages, trade paperback, $15.95
Over the years, Akashic Books has built a reputation as a powerhouse independent publisher of gritty noir fiction. Their rapidly expanding list includes an award-winning series of city-centric noir anthologies (starting with 2004’s Brooklyn Noir), and a growing stable of writers including Arthur Nersesian, Joe Meno, Robert Arellano, and others. Any book with the Akashic stamp comes with an almost unspoken guarantee that no matter the plot, it will be a great read told in a fresh and original voice that will keep you furiously turning pages from start to finish. Nathan Larson’s debut novel, The Dewey Decimal System, is no exception.
Larson, best known as an award-winning film music composer and as the guitarist for prog-punk outfit Shudder To Think, has created one of my favorite literary characters in recent memory. The anonymous narrator known as Dewey Decimal — for his residence in the abandoned main branch of the New York Public Library — is an immediately likable (though deeply flawed) character. Even he is aware of this, as he relates all that he knows of his identity to readers on the first page:
“I can’t relate in exact detail what led me here, but this much I can tell you: I am a man of mixed ethnicity, from the borough of the Bronx. I freelance from time to time for the government of the City of New York. Or at least what’s left of it.”
We learn that Dewey was once a soldier in a “landscape without features” in a war he describes as “very half-assed. Hard to take seriously,” and that he might have a wife and children, but can’t remember too clearly. He lives his life according to “The System” — part moral code, part rules for living — involving not making right turns before 11 am, taking lettered trains before numbered trains on the subway, regularly lathering his hands in hand sanitizer, and taking unidentified pills for his (possibly PTSD-related) anxiety and OCD.
While his passion project is acting as a caretaker for the library, preserving and reorganizing its millions of books — hence his nickname — Dewey’s “freelance” work is as a hit-man for the local government — specifically, the city’s District Attorney. The DA keeps Decimal supplied with his pills, his hand sanitizer, and VIP access past security checkpoints and other hassles in a locked down and militarized New York, still reeling from a series of Valentine’s Day terrorist attacks.
The DA summons Decimal to his office via pager, and hands him his latest assignment: to take care of Yakiv Shapsko, the owner of a local construction company. What sounds like an open and shut assignment goes south when, after a failed encounter with the man, Dewey visits Shapsko’s home address and encounters Shapsko’s estranged wife, Iveta. In a brief lapse of his guard, Dewey gets shot by Iveta who then escapes with her young son. After briefly recuperating in the hospital, Dewey is picked up by Shapsko’s men on the way back home to the library, and brought to Shapsko for a meeting. Shapsko doesn’t know what Dewey wants, or who he works for, but he offers to pay him double whatever he’s being paid currently in exchange for offing Shapsko’s estranged wife Iveta.
Forced to choose between accepting the assignment, or being killed, Dewey accepts the assignment, noting “Cause what else do you say?” This double deal goes from bad to worse for Dewey, when he returns home and is forced to confront a group of men who have infiltrated the library also looking for Iveta Shapsko.
Dewey quickly finds himself in the middle of a power struggle between rival Eastern European gangs, with the DA breathing down his neck, and the FBI soon in hot pursuit. To survive, Dewey must use all his wits, and his deadly skills to play each side against the other, while struggling with his own personal demons. With each side out to get him, keeping one step ahead of them all means finding Iveta, the one person who can tell Dewey just what he’s caught up in.
Where The Dewey Decimal System succeeds, is with its charismatic narrator. Dewey handles the most difficult situations with humor and sarcasm, even when forced to shoot his way out of tight spots. He understands he’s being used in a power struggle, and he’s willing to accept that so long as he doesn’t violate his own moral code. The power of his voice throughout the book makes even the generic Eastern European gangs and cliché corrupt government officials he struggles with believable.
If there’s anything disappointing about The Dewey Decimal System, it’s that Dewey’s laundry list of quirks, (his mystery identity, the source of his OCD, his System), don’t ever get resolved. What we’re left with is a Jason Bourne-type character, a stone cold killer who understands his lethal skills, but struggles with questions of his identity, without the payoff of the character ever discovering and coming to terms with who he really is. The book jacket description notes that this is Larson’s first book in a series featuring Dewey, and with so many loose ends left unexplained, I hope that we will see the character develop more in future installments.
As it stands, The Dewey Decimal System is a fun read from start to finish that leaves the reader wanting more. We can only hope it won’t be long before Larson answers that call.