June 25, 2010


by Josh Bazell
304 pages, Windmill Books

Review by Paul Fenton

I liked this book so much I bought it twice. Not read it twice – bought it twice. You’re probably thinking: idiot. Or maybe you think I know the author, and I’m just doing my bit to help boost a friend’s sales.

You’d be closer with the first guess. Much closer.

In the pre-6am hours of the day my brain has barely enough charge left to power a musical greeting card, so I shouldn’t have been too surprised when I managed to leave the book on the tube station platform.

Sitting on bench reading book … sees train coming … gets on train … sits down to continue reading only to realise book is still sitting on platform bench … doors close … slaps head … realises should have slapped with hand not holding mobile phone.

So apparently I’d put the book down to check a phone message. I swore, the way you do travelling the tube in London (with your inside voice, and your eyes aimed at one of the advertisements above the commuter opposite you, not so much swearing as clenching). I was enjoying this book, it had everything I like in a book, and I was about a third of the way through it. Why couldn’t it have happened to Wolf Hall? After a ludicrously optimistic enquiry back at the ticket office in the station that night – the station attendant looked at me like I’d just enquired about an evening of cocktails and bestiality – I realised the book was lost to me, and I’d have to buy another. So I did.

Beat the Reaper” is a darkly humorous (see earlier remark: “… it had everything I like in a book …”) story, the sometimes gruesome but always funny tale of Peter Brown, a doctor at Manhattan Catholic Hospital who has to duck, dodge, dip, dance and defuse to prevent his hidden mob past from rising up and whacking him. Brown, or Brwna (or Bearclaw to his mob buddies) used to be a mafia hit-man. How he evolved from child to hit-man to doctor provides the framework for the story, and the reader is flipped back and forth between the how and the now. It sounds like a lot of ground to cover, but Bazell blends it together with slick brevity and a dark chuckle. Brown is trudging through his hospital day-job, a gig he managed to secure through the Witness Security programme for ratting on the mob, when an old wise-guy acquaintance is admitted to have some of his cancerous insides removed. He sees Brown and recognises him. Fearful of being rubbed out by Bearclaw, he makes a call to ensure his safety; if he isn’t able to make another call after the surgery, then the mob will come after Brown. The problem is, Brown doesn’t think he’ll survive the surgery with or without his interference.

Something about this book reminds me of Palahniuk – I think it’s the present tense first-person narration, the one-liners, the steady stream of factoids about the businesses of taking and saving lives – but it’s an overall more entertaining read than Chuck’s recent work, and a great deal funnier.

Less gruesome than Palahniuk? Maybe not. Read the whole thing, you’ll see what I mean. Fantastic. I give it five Reapers.

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