Nathan Larson’s The Dewey Decimal System is a sublime, dark, near-future mystery is set in Manhattan, when The Occurrence (a series of Valentine’s Day disasters, including a market crash, a super flu, and city-wide bombings) has reduced all five boroughs to a combined population of less than 800 thousand.
Amnesiac protagonist Dewey Decimal—so named because he lives in the New York City Library—is a freelancer for Homeland Security. In between political assassinations, Dewey keeps his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) under control by re-shelving books. More than a little paranoid, Dewey suspects that the government has implanted false memory chips in his brain. His flashbacks of a nice apartment and a wife and daughter seem to be real enough, but the only thing he’s really certain of is his new assignment: to kill a Ukrainian gangster. This assignment seems standard enough until he hears the Ukrainian’s side of the story, then Dewey begins to question the government itself, especially the motives of his own boss.
Dewey is one of the most unique characters to come along in years, a multiracial man who speaks numerous languages, including Serbian and Mandarin. Dewey is so terrified of germs that he’s become addicted to hand sanitizer. He’s also hooked on the drugs his boss supplies to ensure his cooperation. Although he’s a mess, he’s still a dandy, and loots only from the finest abandoned stores. In the midst of a gun battle, he takes care that blood doesn’t splatter his fashionable suit. Manhattan itself is a leading character in this extraordinary novel. The Brooklyn Bridge is gone, along with most of New York’s other great landmarks. What’s left is a Stephen Kingian shambles, where survivors of The Occurrence subsist in the fetid remains of once-grand hotels.
Author Larson’s voice is note-perfect in this tour de force. When called for, his clipped, brisk prose expands to the lyrical, adeptly singing the praises of beautiful women, cockroaches, and rubble. Reading The Dewey Decimal System transports you to another world, and although that world is a grim one, you’ll be sorry to leave it. Let’s hope that this book isn’t a one-off, that poor damaged Dewey will return to lead us through the ruins on another near-future adventure.