Skyscraper Magazine » The Dewey Decimal System
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Nathan Larson
Akashic Books
Format: Paperback
Release Date: April 19, 2011
By Rob Browning July 13, 2011

The legacy of the Washington, DC, hardcore scene is one with lasting impact well beyond its genesis at the tail end of the Reagan era. While many of the prototypical bands of the movement are no more, almost 30 years on from Revolution Summer pillars of the movement continue apace. The straight-edge movement is still chugging along, stalwart indie label Dischord continues to be a venerated institution, and many of the players in that scene have taken their DIY ethics to new ventures, garnering a notoriety that transcends their musical roots. One such notable is Soulside bassist Johnny Temple, who went on to co-found Girls Against Boys before eventually leaving professional music behind altogether to found independent Brooklyn publishing house Akashic Books.

Fellow four-stringer Nathan Larson, himself an original member of Swiz, followed a similarly divergent path after the dissolution of the much-loved Shudder To Think. While he currently maintains a band called A Camp with his wife Nina Persson (ex-The Cardigans), Larson carved himself an alternate niche in the world of film music beginning in the late 1990s, composing music for more than 20 films to date, including the Academy Award-winning Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and the Todd Solondz films Storytelling (2002) and Palindromes (2005). Recent years have found Larson undertaking the self-appointed task of writing not one but a series of novels revolving around a character of his own creation that he has dubbed Dewey Decimal, the first volume of which, The Dewey Decimal System, has just been published by his old hardcore scene friend Temple’s Akashic Press.

Ere I wade in, it’s important to point out that I am nothing if not a total ignoramus as it revolves around contemporary fiction. I consume a voracious amount of the non-fiction printed word, but my limited forays into the contemporary fiction of the moment (DeLillo, Klosterman) held in high esteem by my peers have been far less than positive. Chuck Klosterman I find to be a particularly slippery slope, as I have met him a couple times and found him to be an engaging, unpretentious guy I’d like to shoot the shit with about music. I love music writing, metal, and reading, but being a guy who does those things and reads fiction about guys who love music, writing, and metal makes me a little uncomfortable.

To the same end, as a long time Gothamite I feel the same way about dystopian portraits of a post-apocalyptic New York City. In Larson’s novel, our eponymous protagonist is an amnesiac mixed-race man in the employ of the district attorney of a New York City in ruins, following a series of explosions and a subsequent Superflu outbreak, referred to in the narrative as “The Incident” (not entirely unlike the “airborne toxic event” in DeLillo’s White Noise). Dewey Decimal is basically an assassin, bound to said DA by a dependence on unnamed pills that evidently keep him alive. That is the bare bones of the story, or part one of it at least. Conceptually, not exactly the most original thing in the world, but The Dewey Decimal System is definitely posited as a post-modern noir work and it succeeds as such.

As it is a genre piece, there are tenets to be adhered to, but it is just that burnishment in the story that rubs me the wrong way. More well-adjusted readers may feel otherwise, but pop culture touchstones have always been hackle-raisers in my fiction consumption and The Dewey Decimal System has them in spades. Obama-esque everyman hero I can let slide, but the fact that the catastrophes that led to the abandonment of Gotham took place on 2/14 and is continually referred to as such gets a tad cloying. As does the obsessive-compulsive/amnesiac with wife and kid murdered/dependence on a drug that keeps him alive factor. One man’s Steven Seagal is another man’s Charles Bronson, I guess.

All these niggles, beyond exposing this reviewer’s douchier critical side, may very well be the product of the New York City zip code I have long called my home. Living here over almost 20 years makes all the tongue-in-cheek New York references a little eye-rollable, but The Dewey Decimal System shows obvious craft with an engaging narrative that should appeal to lovers of all things prose and post-modern. Larson reports that part two of the Decimal story arc is in the can and that the third and final chapter looms ominiously. Here’s hoping his optimism is caught by what’s left of the reading public and all three volumes come to light. While The Dewey Decimal System is an engaging read, I suspect it will be most loved by people who never have lived in New York, or quintessentially narcissistic New Yorkers.

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