"Beat the Reaper"
(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky MAR 27, 2009)
"So I'm on my way to work and I stop to watch a pigeon fight a rat in the snow, and some f-head tries to mug me! Naturally there's a gun. He comes up behind me and sticks it into the base of my skull. It's cold, and it actually feels sort of good, in an acupressure kind of way. "
The hero of Josh Bazell's Beat the Reaper is intern Dr. Peter Brown (real name: Pietro Brnwa), a foul-mouthed hulk who grew up in northern New Jersey. He has impressive martial arts skills that he uses to deadly effect on more than one occasion. Brown has an irreverent and cynical attitude about almost everything, pops uppers like candy, and is in the Federal Witness Protection Program. He has a tragic and colorful past, including a stint working as a Mafia hit man. There is always the chance that someone will recognize him and rat him out to his many enemies. In short, Peter is living on borrowed time, and he will need all of his survival skills to escape the grim reaper when he inevitably comes calling.
Peter is a deeply flawed and off-beat protagonist who is as intelligent as he is aggressive. Throughout the book, he answers a number of questions that actually have a bearing on the plot: Why are scrub suits reversible? In what ways are humans naturally terrible fighters? Why was the Bishop of Berlin during World War II, Konrad Preysing, known as "The One Good German"? What are the differences between the fibula and the tibia? As the novel progresses, we learn about Peter's childhood and adolescence, including his relationship with the Locano family. When Peter is fifteen, he befriends his classmate, Adam Locano, and Adam's father, David, a lawyer with mob connections, takes Peter under his wing. Peter is so hungry for a feeling of belonging that he is willing to sell his soul to become a member of this clan. As a youngster, he cannot anticipate what a high price he will pay for his connection to the Locanos and their associates. After he becomes a hit man, he later admits that killing "murders something in yourself, and has all kinds of other consequences you can't possibly foresee." Partly to atone for his actions, Peter decides to go into medicine.
Beat the Reaper is adrenaline-fueled, complicated, politically incorrect, and filled with action and gore. (There is a nerve-wracking scene in a shark tank). It is enlivened by witty dialogue and unexpected twists and turns. Although everything that happens is surreal, we go along for the roller-coaster ride because it is fun, exciting, and unpredictable. Those who are offended by four-letter words and sexually explicit language might want to skip this one. Readers who enjoy sharp satire with a touch of poignancy (Peter does have a heart, although it is not always obvious) will want to stick around and see if Dr. Brown can stay alive to wisecrack another day.
- Amazon readers rating: from 265 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Three Guys interview with Josh Bazell
- LeahPeah interview with Josh Bazell
- New York Mag interview with Josh Bezell
- The New York Times review of Beat the Reaper
- SFGate review of Wild Thing
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About the Author:
Josh Bazell has a BA in writing from Brown University and a MD from Columbia University. He is currently a medical resident at the University of California, San Francisco