Thursday, February 19, 2009

Beat the Reaper - Josh Bazell

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 scuplture 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've 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.

I barely have enough drugs and money to get me through the day. And the only oath I took, as I recall, was to first do no harm. I'm thinking we're past that point.

I was in the middle of reading several other books when the review copy of Beat the Reaper dropped onto the mat. On my way to add it to the depressingly ever-growing Stack, I happened to glance at the first few paragraphs... and that was it, I was hooked. As you'd imagine from the quoted piece, this is a fast'n'furious hospital drama/crime thriller, full of black humour and medical terminology, as our brick-shithouse-proportioned doctorly protagonist finds his past catching up with him, and has just a few hours to try and save his own life.

Peter Brown, as he's now known, is our hero, and is working as a doctor under the Witness Protection Programme after turning on his Mafia bosses. He's not your standard ex-mobster, though; full of contempt for the wise-guy culture, we gradually find out how this nice Jewish kid was sucked in to the world of Sicilian gang violence, and it makes for some compelling and uncomfortable reading. With the extent of the story filling just a few sleep-deprived hours in a dirty, underfunded metropolitan hospital, the whole thing starts to feel like Kiefer Sutherland has wandered onto the set of ER, via the Sopranos, taking in a Holocaust documentary en route.

Punctuating the energetic narrative, particularly in the hospital sections, are a whole load of footnotes explaining the jargon; the usefulness ranges from some handy decoding of doctor-speak, to the occasional "Like you care what this means" against a particularly boring acronym. It's an interesting device that only occasionally derails the flow, as the sardonic conversational tone makes the infodumps seem like part of the story. This also serves to set it apart from most other similar thrillers, so despite the occasional obvious and familiar plot twist, the story feels fresh and funny and interesting. Definitely recommended for any fans of the genre.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great review - any book that sucks someone in so much has got to be worth trying!


3:19 pm  

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