The word “installment” in the blurb or ad copy of any book sends me into paroxysms of fear; either I’m being told that book one is soooo good that I will have no choice but to read the next umpety-ump installments, or perhaps more daunting, that I’m being thrown headlong into something that is already well on its way to completion—that reading requires getting caught up, requires doing (more) homework. Neither option sounds particularly appealing—in part because the sound of my bookshelves groaning under the weight of books I’ve bought or been given, you know? The prospect of a series is often a selfish one on the part of the writer, and demanding of the reader.
So you understand the reluctance with which I approached The Immune System, the third installment in Nathan Larson’s trilogy, featuring the hard-boiled ass-kicker Dewey Decimal. Larson’s book quickly confirmed, again, that I am a dipshit. Not only does the author have an extraordinary ear for pacing, voice, and plot, but he recognizes the reluctance new readers might have to jump into an existing series because of the commitment implied (and, in my case, groused about)and manages to circumvent these worries. In doing so, he makes me want to backtrack—not out of any sense of obligation or guilt, but because this book is so much fucking fun to read that I’d love to get more of Mr. Decimal’s story.
The key is the voice. The Immune System is narrated in first person, a perfect synthesis of poetic observation melded with streetwise patois, percussive and rhythmic. See, Dewey Decimal is a mercenary in a dystopian New York City with no bridges: they were destroyed by terrorists on Valentine’s Day, leaving Manhattan Balkanized by organized crime syndicates. Ol’ Dewey, given his druthers, would prefer to live a quiet life in his home, the New York Public Library, where he’s given himself the arduous and obsessive task of organizing the now-disorganized contents back into the sequence which bears his name, but he’s gotta eat (more on this in a sec). In addition to the mammoth task of re-filing all the library’s books, scene after scene finds him putting on hand sanitizer to ward off germs and hopefully keep living for a little while longer, such is the state of the city. In different hands, any portion of the narrative—the city’s gangland Maginot lines, Decimal’s funky, repetitive patois—might come across as clumsy, but Decimal’s observations are perfectly idiosyncratic and funny throughout. Musical, too: Nathan Larson cut his teeth in ‘80s DC powerhouse Swiz before joining Shudder To Think thereafter—like the latter, this prose is imbued with an oddness that becomes a language of its own far more quickly than you think, and like the former, is blunt in its power.
So there is the obsession and the language, which add style. But there has gotta be a story, too, otherwise the style is wasted. And there is a story: remember how Dewey would rather re-file all the books? Well Senator Clarence Howard runs the Coalition, the syndicate controlling a huge swath of post-Valentine’s Day Manhattan. Howard gives Decimal his orders (like protecting Saudi twins or razing a bunch of anarchists)—actions that connect Decimal to the huge, bloated stack of bodies in his past, and put him into even more danger than he anticipated.
In the midst of the plotlines, which are noir-appropriate but not so obfuscated that they’re impossible to follow (see: True Detective season two), the narrative becomes even more staccato than the punchy prose might suggest as Dewey Decimal’s short-term memory erodes. He finds himself, not unlike Memento, in mid-situation, trying to remember what he is doing and why, blacking out with self-described “jump cuts” to mid-shootout or worse.
Lord knows the three or four bookstores still eking out an existence have no shortage of dystopia in their endcaps: and why not? A quick scan of the headlines proves to be a giant bummer as we pilot towards what increasingly feels like a messy inevitability. But never during the reading of The Immune System was I bored, or for that matter, reminded of anything happening in our world. It’s quite a feat to write a dystopia that is fun and takes the reader to a better place for a while. Larson does this.
The style and the plot complement each other absolutely, to the extent that my bookshelves are still creaking, now under the added weight of the first two books of the series. All right! –Michael T. Fournier (Akashic Books, 232 3rd St. A115, Brooklyn, NY11215, akashicbooks.com)