While writing his debut novel, The Dewey Decimal System, Nathan Larson at first resisted setting it in a dystopia. "The seed for this book was simply an image I had," he said. "A man in a suit, sleeping in a completely empty room at the NYC Main Branch Public Library." But as the story unfolded, "I realized I needed to completely empty out the city for this guy in order to get the tone I was aiming for." That tone — the urban wasteland of a post-apocalyptic Manhattan in the very near future — is the meaty set of bones from which Larson hangs a pretty straightforward noir mystery, with an outsider at the center and a whole lot of untrustworthy people competing for his loyalty and/or his hide, often in the same scene.
Larson, reading on Thursday, May 5, at Pegasus Downtown (2349 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) with Nina Revoyr, is an award-winning film composer (Boys Don't Cry, Dirty Pretty Things, and others) and bassist for Nineties indie-prog band Shudder to Think. Appropriately, The Dewey Decimal System has a pervasive tunefulness; and its narrator, the memory-deficient, obsessive-compulsive gun-for-hire Dewey Decimal (so nicknamed because of his residence in the library, trying to reorder the stacks after the city has been decimated by a series of terrorist attacks — "the Valentine's Occurrence," or simply "2/14") is a sharp-dressed guy with an impressive musical vocabulary and a lyrical speaking style.
He's also mixed-race — Filipino, Saint Lucian, and Trinidadian — which came in handy when Larson began to explore Manhattan's post-Valentine's ethnic- and class-based clannishness. "Given a cataclysm like the one I describe in this novel, people would most likely circle their wagons around their 'own,' just as New York City, as diverse a place as anywhere in the world, has these tight little enclaves," Laron said. "Dewey is clearly 'other' in the sense that he doesn't really slot in to any category, and he doesn't give a shit actually, but he certainly observes these various groups banding together to some end, or battling against each other, fighting over scraps."
As Dewey lurches through the boroughs, smoking, firing, and very often bleeding, he remains as much an enigma to us as he does to himself: He has memories that could be real or implanted, and he has a jones for a mysterious "medication" that may or may not serve to keep his heart from exploding. But he is his own man, and in that respect he resembles Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op, the nameless detective at the center of the noir classic Red Harvest and other short stories — out of breath, out of allies, and usually out of luck. Larson drew inspiration from hardboiled writers like James M. Cain, David Goodis, and Jim Thompson; the smart, weird sci-fi of J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick; and speculative literary fiction by David Foster Wallace and Will Self. The result is a narrative that's gritty, gripping, tight as a drumhead, and just strange enough to keep things really interesting.
Dewey's riddles aren't done — not the ones regarding his identity nor the ones in which he's embroiled. "I've got a second book well on its way and a third in the planning stages," Larson said. "I love this character a lot, and I want to make sure I've learned as much as I can from him before I let him go." 7:30 p.m., free. 510-649-1320 or PegasusBookstore.com