VJ Books Blog

(sfgate.com, Edward Guthmann, Jan. 26)

Josh Bazell read “The Godfather” when he was 9. It wasn’t standard reading for a fourth-grader but for Bazell it ignited a lifetime fascination with the Mafia.

“I grew up in New York, near Little Italy,” Bazell says. “The Mafia was such a fact of life. You would see these people all the time.”

As he grew up, his passion never waned. Bazell studied trial transcripts and devoured tawdry memoirs by reformed wise guys. Eventually, his interest resulted in his first novel, “Beat the Reaper” (Little, Brown), a blistering, fast-paced satire that imagines a former Mafia hit man who joins the Federal Witness Protection Program, goes to medical school and becomes an intern in a Manhattan hospital.

Bazell, 38, had a lot of material to draw from. A graduate of Columbia University Medical Center, he was an intern at the Veteran Administration Medical Center in San Francisco when “Beat the Reaper” found a publisher.

The subject of an intense bidding war between eight publishers in October, “Reaper” was eventually snapped up by Little, Brown. Twenty countries also bought distribution rights, resulting in deals totaling seven figures. A spokesperson for Little, Brown declined to reveal the exact amount, but it’s probably more than most doctors make.

But the “Reaper” success doesn’t stop there. This month, New Regency Production bought screen rights to the book as a vehicle for Leonardo Di Caprio. Any other first-time novelist would be ecstatic, but when Bazell talks about it, there’s caution in his voice – as if unchecked celebration of his fortune could jinx future writing efforts.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely awesome,” Bazell says as the J Church streetcar rattles outside his Noe Valley apartment. “My problem with talking about this stuff is that it has nothing to do with the writing of the book, and my hope is that it has nothing to do with the experience of reading the book.”

Brash, sometimes snarky in its tone, similar to the kinetic fiction of Chuck Palahniuk, “Beat the Reaper” places ex-Mafioso Pietro “Bearclaw” Brnwa in a low-end hospital where the staff are slipshod and cynical. Having changed his name to Dr. Peter Brown, Bearclaw freaks when Nicholas LoBrutto, a terminally ill mobster also known as Eddy Squilante, checks into the hospital.

Bazell, who speaks in a low voice with little animation – a sharp contrast to the fierce energy of his book – is dressed in a navy-blue blazer, pink shirt and jeans. His apartment has an untended, bachelor-pad quality, giving no indication that its occupant scored a major success with his first novel.

He says he started “Beat the Reaper” when he was in New York studying at Columbia, and finished two years ago after moving to San Francisco. Each day he rose at 5 a.m. and wrote for two hours – the exact schedule that Khaled Hosseini, author of “The Kite Runner” and also a doctor-turned-author, maintained while working as an internist at Kaiser in Mountain View.

For Bazell, who worked as a screenwriter in Los Angeles before going to medical school, it was the first thing he’d written since 2001.

“My interest in creating the book was to have it be as entertaining and propulsive as possible,” he says. “That’s something I spent a lot of time and energy on, is readability … . The book was a tremendous amount of fun to write. I was in such a good mood.”

Although “The Sopranos” boosted interest in the Mafia during its eight-year run on HBO, Bazell says it wasn’t a touchstone for him. “There’s something about it that I like. It’s quite sordid, almost depressing, and I think it’s a terrifically made TV show.

“But it doesn’t get into the things I’m interested in about the Mafia: How do they really make money? How does the system work and how many people actually make a living doing it? How many pretend to be in it for social considerations – like being threatening or getting good restaurant seats.”

Bazell wanted accuracy in the book, and it includes a brief section outlining the history of the Mafia. “So often in books and movies the Mob is either this omnipotent conspiracy or they’re lovable clods who can’t get anything right and fumble at jewel heists. I figured the reality is somewhere in between.”

Asked what he’ll do with his tremendous windfall, Bazell says he hopes it gives him the freedom to write for a living, “because then I could practice medicine on a volunteer basis, free of concerns involving insurance companies and other corporate entities.” He has two years left of his residency and plans to go into psychiatry but keep his hand in physical medicine.

Bazell’s next book is a sequel, a continuation of Bearclaw’s absurdist adventures as a mobster-turned-physician. So far, he says, there hasn’t been any reaction to “Beat the Reaper” from Mafiosi.

“I think they were thrilled with ‘The Godfather.’ That was the greatest thing that ever happened to them. My portrayal is a lot less positive. It doesn’t have somebody sitting around granting favors all day, because I don’t think that’s primarily what they do.

“But I don’t know how many mobsters read at all.”