Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Beat The Reaper by Josh Bazell

I am a sucker for genre entertainment, especially the kind that appeals to immature males: cop shows, comic books, action movies, science-fiction anything. The more lowbrow it is, the more likely I am to spend some valuable lifespan taking it in. Beyond the comforts of the familiar (and a certain amount of childish wish-fulfillment), the pleasures of genre come down to this: variations on a theme. In other words, part of the pleasure is to see how the conventions of a genre are used (or not) by a given artist in a particular work to create an interesting experience.

In science-fiction, there's all that glittering gadgetry and technological extrapolation. In action movies, there are the explosive set-pieces and the corny dialog, the whiz-bang editing of the choreographed violence. In comic books, the colors and costumes aren't just decoration. They're integral parts of the pleasure.

And there, at the dark, spinning center of my idio-aesthetic, lies the crime novel. I can rarely put one down once I pick it up. This is not to say I like them all. In fact, I rarely do. It's just that, for whatever reason, they go down so easily. I can usually sandwich a couple such pulpy paperbacks between any serious books I'm trying to ingest.

This would explain why I keep reading Michael Connelly & Joseph Wambaugh, even though I can't say that I really enjoy their books. It's just that they're competent craftsman in ways that James Patterson is not.

But then I pick up Josh Bazell's Beat The Reaper. It opens with, "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!" Now here's an auspicious beginning for a piece of pulp. There's the first-person narration, the in-media-res kickstart, the gritty detail, and the end-of-the-sentence twist. Talk about variations on a theme!

And so we meet Peter Brown, an intern at Manhattan Catholic hospital who, in the course of a single shift, will have to defend himself against the secrets of his past as they literally rise up to kill him. Bazell's set-up is brilliant: the phantasmagoric happenings at the hospital are a perfect backdrop to the asides and reminiscences that Peter tosses up as he navigates Manhattan Catholic's maze.

The story moves quickly, and alternating chapters concern Peter's past and present until they meet in a climactic confrontation that has to be read to be believed, involving the most original self-defense weapon I've ever encountered. While grappling with the life-and-death dilemmas of his patients, Peter has some mortality complications of his own. There's even a surprising amount of historical context, lifting the stakes above the run-of-the-mill mafia revenge tale. (How many American crime thrillers involve a visit to modern-day Auschwitz?)

For those of you who are familiar with the trappings of the crime-novel genre, Beat The Reaper offers the full gamut: the flawed hero with a dark past, the intricate plot involving the seedy underbelly of society, the self-aware & sarcastic narrative tone, and large, dripping helpings of violence. But the author manages to concoct a whole that is more than the sum of its well-worn parts. Beat The Reaper is genuinely entertaining, largely because Peter Brown is a fully-realized, engaging character (who, despite fighting for both his career & his life, nevertheless finds the time to inform us of what a tongue-stud really says about a woman).

About the footnotes: other reviewers have pointed out that Bazell's narration contains footnotes, which they attack as a structural weakness. But I disagree. These footnotes, none of which are very long, actually help to flesh out the character of Peter, allowing him to share some of the esoteric knowledge he has picked up during his unique upbringing (like why -- and how -- doctors always know how old you are, even if you lie to them). After all, like anyone who makes it through medical school, Peter is justly proud of who he has become. And, it turns out, Peter has taken an especially roundabout way to his medical degree.

The realistic detail that underpins Beat The Reaper (some of which is anatomically disturbing) comes from the author's own experience. It turns out that Josh Bazell is a doctor who earned his M.D. from Columbia. But that knowledge is only window-dressing. Despite his academic achievements, Beat The Reaper reveals Bazell's true identity: he's actually an amazingly entertaining storyteller.

by Josh Bazell
published by Little, Brown and Company

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