In his groundbreaking post-hardcore outfit Shudder To Think—particularly the band’s 1994 masterpiece, Pony Express Record—guitarist Nathan Larson helped push rock music into places it had never ventured before. Since then, he’s made his name composing film scores, from Boys Don’t Cry to Dirty Pretty Things. What possessed him to wander into genre fiction is anyone’s guess—but if his frustrating debut novel, The Dewey Decimal System, is any indication, he has a long way to go before rising above the level of enthusiastic dabbler.
Larson launches The Dewey Decimal System on a solid platform: In the near future, a barrage of catastrophes ranging from economic collapse to pandemic flu has reduced New York City to a husk with a population of 800,000. Against this tattered backdrop, the book’s hero—Dewey Decimal, naturally—lives the half-life of an “off-the-grid nonperson.” The amnesiac veteran of an indeterminate war, Dewey does odd enforcement jobs for the city’s corrupt district attorney. He dwells among his fellow scavengers at the main branch of the New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan, granted the vague task of cataloguing the already-catalogued books—hence his nickname.
After such a promising setup, Dewey Decimal grinds gears into a hardboiled-detective/science-fiction pastiche that sadly never clicks. Much of the problem lies in Larson’s inability to shape coherence out of his thrown-against-the-wall elements; Dewey is given a laundry list of crippling quirks (including germaphobic OCD and a cryptic moral code) that feels cobbled together from mid-list cable TV, and he’s surrounded by a suffocating cast of clichés, from sinister Ukrainian mobsters to a stream of overexplained pop-culture tags that feel forced and borderline-anachronistic. Granted, clichés are the raw material of the genres in which Larson traffics—still, he’s rarely able to elevate them beyond the shallowest, clumsiest pastiche.
At points, though, the book delivers on the intrigue of its initial premise. Amid the fumbling, blustery internal monologue of the first-person protagonist, rare patches of roughhewn poetry emerge—and the re-imagining of 9/11 as a Valentine’s Day terrorist attack adds a symbolic underbelly to an otherwise rote chunk of workmanship. The Dewey Decimal System is billed as the first installment in a series, so there’s a possibility Larson will someday have the chance to transcend the stilted, self-conscious Dewey Decimal with the same dexterity he brings to his music. Until then, the book stands as an occasionally enthralling, naggingly annoying genre mash-up that could use an infusion of raw storytelling skill to match its voice and vision.