(sfgate.com, Jan. 12, Kristin Thiel)
It’s cheating to begin a review with the book’s first line, but there are exceptions: “So I’m on my way to work and I stop to watch a pigeon fight a rat in the snow, and some f-head tries to mug me!”
That first sentence is everything an editor might quirk an eyebrow at: The reader is immediately dropped into three disparate actions. No one cares about a character going to work or two sidewalk critters squawking, and we certainly don’t know enough yet about the narrator to care that he almost gets mugged. And the sentence ends in an exclamation mark!
But medical doctor Josh Bazell‘s first novel is like that. A little scattered (complete with the mess that is footnotes in fiction) and more than a little offensive, it works because the loose threads tie together, the grating is not a bad thing, and the emotions are sharp, as in the book’s fourth sentence, when the narrator says that the would-be mugger’s gun, pressed against his head, is “cold, and it actually feels sort of good, in an acupressure kind of way.”
Peter Brown – a.k.a. Pietro Brnwa, a.k.a. the Bearclaw, a.k.a. Ishmael – is one year out of medical school, a resident in internal medicine at Manhattan Catholic. Raised by his grandparents until he was almost 15, he’s finally on the track he may have been reared to follow – had his grandparents not been murdered by the Mafia and had Peter not set out to avenge their deaths by killing for the mob himself. Unfortunately for Peter, his early life is affecting his current one, and flashbacks give context to present-tense action.
Footnotes are usually a weak experiment in fiction, and “Beat the Reaper” offers no exception. Bazell’s don’t fit into the story’s style or tone, and the author seems to use them only out of laziness, since they are few and far between, trickling out after the beginning. But the information contained in many is interesting. The novel skims like a water strider along social comedy, hitting on a few topics, including health care. For one: Surgical scrubs “have all been in at least one fast food restaurant since the last time they were washed.”
Also: “Whistling forces more oxygen through one’s lung tissues, hence the mine-working Seven Dwarves’ predilection, and health care would cost a lot less if the Do Not Resuscitate order was not as taboo as it is.” But those last two are in the main narrative, proof that Bazell needn’t hide his words in asides. His descriptions are subtly icky and strangely universal. They’re also horribly accurate, working on multiple levels:
“Did I mention how f-ing, f-ing cold it was in Poland? … The kind where your eyes gush water to keep from freezing and your cheeks clench up and pull your lips back, and the only thing keeping you warm is the image of Hitler’s Sixth Army’s hobnailed boots conducting their body heat into the ground. The air was almost too cold to breathe.”
And Bazell is really funny, mostly in a fast-flying, smart-alecky way, but with enough rim-shot silliness – as when Peter explains mobster Joey Camaro’s nickname, “supposedly because he was constantly bitching.” Peter is the crazy-looking guy at the back of the bus whom you kind of want to buy a beer. He’s the person you both do and don’t want on your side, kept around. He’s the pigeon trying to beat the rat. And so is his story.