Beat the Reaper
Josh Bazell
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Buy *Beat the Reaper* by Josh Bazell online

Beat the Reaper
Josh Bazell
Little, Brown
320 pages
January 2009
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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This most unusual novel begins in a Manhattan hospital then segues into the faulty detours of a young man’s past. On one fateful morning, past collides with present, and intern Doctor Peter Brown must make instant decisions if he wants to stay alive.

I don’t usually enjoy humorous books, but Bazell manages a clever and unique balance of acerbic wit and gruesome reality, cutting through the heavy ironies of a life on the edges of society. Born Pietro Brnwa, the boy’s grandparents rescue him from a hippie, globe-trotting mother and father, the older couple offering security and values at a critical time.

But these generous grandparents are murdered when Pietro is fifteen, apparently in a home invasion robbery. The young man becomes obsessed with locating the killers. The police seem indifferent to his situation, so Pietro creates his own investigation, focusing on a local crime family, the Locanos. Surely aware of the boy’s circumstances, David Locano and his family welcome Pietro, the young man eventually seduced by the very people he has sworn to destroy. Pietro adapts to his new lifestyle, a natural-born killer honing his skills in assassination and befriending David’s son, Adam.

We learn of this bizarre past and his many adventures as Brown stumbles from case to case on his hospital rounds, drug-fueled and brain-addled, a natural state for interns. However, stepping into a patient’s room, Brown comes face-to-face with an equally shocked individual being prepped for surgery, a man who retains intimate connections with the Locano family and the mob. One phone call, and Brown’s carefully constructed house of cards will collapse.

Clearly, Peter Brown has found his niche in life, perhaps a path to redemption after a confused past where killing was the norm, the love of a woman the inspiration to escape his life and embrace the future. Performing a series of brilliant saves in a hospital riddled with budgetary shortfalls, inept practitioners and stupid mistakes, Peter reflects on his criminal past, an orgy of violence strewn with the countless bodies felled on behalf of David Locano.

Left as well is the friendship with Locano’s son, Adam, who has the mentality of a killer for hire and no loyalty, spoiled by luxury and free-flowing drugs, his father always available to cover any mistakes, including his son’s ineptitude. The last time Peter saw Adam was when he tossed him out of a sixth-floor window. Now it seems that Adam is only a phone call away.

How a confused teenager seeking vengeance for his grandparents’ murders is seduced into a long relationship with mob violence is a story unto itself, Pietro virtually a killing machine until self-interest dictates he escape the brutal criminality of his new family. But all is in immediate jeopardy in that moment of reckoning when the intern recognizes the familiar face being prepped for surgery.

This remarkably clever slasher story somehow remains riveting throughout (including footnotes), an assault on the senses with on-target black humor and some horribly memorable scenes as killer meets his nemesis in a bone-shattering climax. Everything dies - true love, friendship, even dreams - but our protagonist lives to relate a hellish tale played out below society’s civilized façade.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2009

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