“Beat the Reaper” by Josh Bazell

Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper is the November selection for the Books and Bars book club here in the Twin Cities. It’s a fast, furious read that often left me jaw-dropped at its brazen, hilarious, profane moments, which are many. The book isn’t for the faint of heart, or the sensitive of ears. Here’s the opening:

So I’m on my way to work and I stop to watch a pigeon fight a rat in the snow, and some fuckhead 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. “Take it easy, Doc,” he says.

Which explains that, at least. Even at five in the morning, I’m not the kind of guy you mug. I look like an Easter Island sculpture of a longshoreman. But the fuckhead can see the blue scrub pants under my overcoat, and the ventilated green plastic clogs, so he thinks I’ef got drugs and money on me. And maybe that I’ve taken some kind of oath not to kick his fuckhead ass for trying to mug me…

Peter Brown is a first-year resident in Internal Medicine at low-regarded Manhattan Catholic hospital. He proceeds to kick the mugger’s ass, but leaves him still breathing, “in fact with a bubbly joie de vivre” then plans to deposit him at the ER. But

…before I stand, I take his handgun.

The gun is a real piece of shit…

I should throw it out. Bend the barrel and drop it down a storm drain.

Instead I slip it into the back pocket of my scrub pants.

Old habits die harder than that.

Peter’s smart; he’s funny. And he used to be a mafia hitman, fka Pietro Brnwa aka Bearclaw,.

In alternating chapters we learn Peter’s past, and how it’s continuing to reach out into his present, as always happens in a mafia story. Someone from his past has surfaced, threatening to expose him. Along with an imminent visit by the reaper of the title (whose icon changes appropriately and hilariously midway through the book), Brown’s dealing with a chronic lack of sleep, an absent nursing staff, eager med students, an escaped patient, a mystery infection, and a sultry drug rep.

To say this book is fast paced is an understatement. The story roars ahead with a momentum built on Peter’s med-fueled mania and his attempt to beat the reaper, which culminates in a “no freaking way!” scene that must be read to be believed. In spite of his past, and his bitter present, Peter is a good guy, trying to help those who need it and punish those who deserve it. Whether he falls into the latter category is a running question through the book.

In the end, there are a few loose ends and unanswered questions, but it’s hard to care much about them other than to wish for the speedy appearance of a sequel. Some critic described this as a mix of House and the Sopranos. I’d add: on speed and with no sleep.

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