Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell (unabridged audio book read by Robert Petkoff)

Peter Brown is an intern at New York's Manhattan Catholic Hospital, but he used to be Pietro Brnwa (a.k.a. "Bearclaw"), a hired assassin for the mob, and now he's hiding out with the help of the Federal Witness Relocation Program. While doing his usual rounds, he comes across a familiar face: Nicholas LoBrutto (a.k.a. Eddy Squillante, a.k.a. Eddy Consol), who immediately thinks they've sent Peter to kill him.

But Eddy soon realizes the true situation and proposes a deal (of sorts): keep him alive (Eddy has signet-cell stomach cancer), and Eddy won't pass along Peter's location to David Locano, the father figure Peter turned over to the Feds (which got him put in WITSEC in the first place).

Beat the Reaper is the debut novel from author Josh Bazell. Titled after a Firesign Theatre skit, this book has the same sort of frenetic nature as the work of that comedy troupe. The main plot is pretty thin (I just summarized it entirely), so just like life, the book consists mostly of the stuff between events: flashbacks, various medical crises, and Peter's darkly humorous philosophy on the happenings.

We get to learn all about Peter's backstory, including the murder of his grandparents, his search for revenge, his "adoption" by David Locano and antagonistic brotherhood with Locano's son "Skinflick," his love for the beautiful Magdalena, and why he doesn't care much for sharks. Bazell slips from present to past tense with the ease of a more seasoned writer. This is especially impressive considering that he reportedly wrote Beat the Reaper while finishing his own residency (Bazell has an M.D. in addition to a B.A. in creative writing). This makes him the latest in a line of doctors/writers that includes two of my favorites, F. Paul Wilson and Somerset Maugham.

Bazell's medical expertise gives us lots of educational tidbits throughout the many footnotes in Beat the Reaper. (These footnotes are included seamlessly in the audio version.) And the medical details such as the arrangement of the bones in the forearm actually serve to make the surrounding narrative that much funnier (though we're later warned away from taking any of it as factual — and I'm not sure that the LD50 of defenestration will come in handy any time soon, anyway).

I've also never learned so much about the camps at Auschwitz in one sitting; this novel is definitely much more than it seems — and so entertainingly written. The jabs at the mafia are particularly astute ("The Godfather [is] a movie from the 1970s about the 1950s that mob guys model their lives on to this day").

Beat the Reaper is a wholly modern venture into crime fiction with Peter Brown (you'd think WITSEC would've given him a moniker not quite so close to his own; that's purely old-style Ellis Island–quality naming right there) as the currently preferred hardcase antihero who is only likable in comparison to everyone else (and because of his biting, cynical sense of humor). Yet it retains a mainstream appeal and should draw anyone from fans of classic noir fiction to horror aficionados (with its incredibly gut-wrenching finale).

Narrator Robert Petkoff pulls all this off admirably in his reading of the unabridged audiobook of Beat the Reaper, especially his integration of the footnotes into the running text. His world-weary delivery fits the character so well that one could be excused for thinking it was Bazell himself at the microphone. Also, the two musical pieces that open and close the audiobook (one jazz, one hip-hop) perfectly bookend the experience with percussion that both sets up and carries off the "badass" feel of the novel.

The storyline requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief, and the love story is the weakest portion — two guys having a close friendship with little in common is a regular occurrence, but I seriously doubt any woman would put up with Peter's garbage — but the narrative voice is so strong that it carries the reader or listener smoothly over any of Beat the Reaper's bumps in logic. Josh Bazell is definitely an author to keep an eye out for. He makes writing a novel this layered look easy, and his style is one that could translate to many different tales, though how he can follow this debut is anyone's guess.

1 comment:

David Cranmer said...

I enjoyed it quite a bit. Amazing debut.

Related Posts with Thumbnails