Bazell's profanely hilarious debut hits the ground running with a street thug
trying to mug New York City physician intern Peter Brown. The young doc is on
his way to work and doesn't have time for this nonsense so Brown (in some quick
not-learned-in-med-school moves) disables the jerk, throws him over his
shoulder, then drops him in the hospital's emergency room to care for his
injuries. What he did learn in med school was how to describe in graphic detail
just exactly how he is disabling the jerk complete with footnotes. Four pages
in and I already know that Peter Brown is a really complex person. A benevolent
Many authors and almost all first time novelists build a character slowly, page-by-deliberate-page. Don't get me wrong. Brown is much more than is revealed in that first scene. His back story and current situation only get more and more complicated. However, that initial glimpse of a man who could be so street savvy and strangely compassionate at once teases at someone with a real tale to tell. Here Bazell shines in the very best tradition of fiction writing or any type of writing for that matter. He doesn't tell us about Brown's past and that he marches in the direction of his own unique moral compass. No, sir. Bazell draws a picture, a vignette, in which Brown acts in such a way that the reader can't help but summon any number of suppositions about why this man acts the way he does in this situation. We want to know more. Even if it isn't all peachy pleasant to ponder, even if some of the humor does make us wince while we guffaw.
Peter Brown, aka Pietro Brnwa, aka Bearclaw, is a Polish/Italian mixed breed Jew who describes himself as "brutal and stupid-looking." Once inside the corridors of Manhattan Catholic (trust me; not a good place for sick people) he hooks up with a hot young pharmaceutical salesperson, scores some drugs off her that will keep him awake and looks in on a patient who had obviously died on the previous shift but whose demise no one bothered to note. He also receives orders to check on a new patient, Mr. LoBrutto, who has a particularly malicious case of stomach cancer. When he does he learns that LoBrutto is really a guy he used to know named Eddy Squillante a mob guy who not only has a grudge against Brown but knows plenty of other mob guys who also feel they have a score to settle with "Bearclaw." This is not so good.
Turns out Peter Brown was once Pietro Brnwa before he ratted out on certain members of the mob and sought safety under the witness protection program. He subsequently put himself through medical school and began atoning for the sins he had committed as a mob hitman. But the reasons he became first a hitman and then a doctor go back to grandparents who raised him after his parents took off for parts unknown. The pair he, a doctor, she, a housewife -- were Holocaust survivors who came to the United States and had settled into a nice middle class life raising their grandson only to be cruelly slaughtered in an act of random brutality. Pietro was fourteen at the time. When the police came up dry on suspects Pietro decided to take matters into his own hands.
Relying on a certain amount of New Jersey street smarts he manipulated the system until he became the ward of a mob family, the parents of his best friend, Skinflick. Once "on the inside," so to speak, Pietro began making inquiries, ultimately locating and dispatching the gangster wannabes who had killed his grandparents. Having shown a certain gift, if you will, for jobs like this he was soon called upon to carry out other, similar, mob-related assignments. It was a job he did competently and it paid well. Eventually certain incidents related to both his deceased grandparents and his beloved girlfriend caused him to turn state's evidence and begin a new life; a life that now hinges on the survival of a man with a terminal illness. Because as soon as Squillante recognizes Brown he notifies his mob associates, instructing them to "take care of" Brown in the event of his death.
In between dodging bad guys Brown tries to keep up his hospital rounds and patient care while becoming more and more sleep-deprived and even more "upper" drug dependent. Things become increasingly zany to the point where he notes that, "you may have taken things too far when you're holding a knife you've just made out of your own shinbone." Oh, yeah. Beat the Reaper is just that gritty. But it is testament to Bazell's skill that he can deliver a message of personal responsibility and accountability while making readers simultaneously cringe and cackle.
This review was originally published in February 2009, and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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