Book Review – Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell

I’m a Charlie Huston honk. There, I admitted it. Like the first step out of twelve, I recognize my problem. And I feel unburdened. Free almost. I’m a Huston-holic. A junkie for Charlie’s magical mushroom prose. And like every good Huston-holic, I’m always searching for writers with a similar style. Writers that’ll grab me by the throat, worrying me like a dog.

Enter Josh Bazell.

A combination of Huston and Chuck Palahniuk, Bazell stuns with his debut novel Beat the Reaper, a brutal and humorous medical-crime gritfest. It’s Goodfellas meets House-with footnotes. Part hitman, part healer. But with a bedside manner that will have you running out of a hospital quicker than you can say “HMO.” Though this big idea sounds odd, the novel works, beautifully. Like a virus that gets inside you, always consuming, always growing. Never stopping. If you don’t have an addiction, Beat the Reaper will give you one. Namely a finishing-the-book addiction. It’s like life. Once you start, you won’t stop until you reach the end mushroom grow bags.

Dr. Peter Brown has a past he’d like to forget. Once a hitter for the mob-known as Pietro “Bearclaw” Brnwa-he got out when things went bad, testifying against his former employers before dropping off the face of the earth, courtesy of the Federal Witness Protection Program.

Relocated and re-imagined, Peter assumes a new life as an intern at Manhattan Catholic Hospital. Helping and treating patients. Including one patient who happens to be a mob father with a good memory. One who happens to recognize the Pietro in Peter. Suddenly Peter must move fast to stay ahead of a vengeful mob looking to mete out mafia justice. The type of justice that’ll put him into the Manhattan Catholic morgue.

The narrative alternates between chapters. One plotline focusing on Peter’s current predicament and one examining his past as a mob enforcer, both slowly teasing out the answers of why he left the life. And why he’s on the lam. The action is intense, and the alternating nature of the chapters makes the book incredibly addictive. Like literary crack, it’ll have you greeting the dawn, puffy red bags under your eyes. I stayed up most of the night, compelled to finish. Even better I was absolutely satisfied once I did.

Bazell never shortchanges the reader, peppering Beat the Reaper with a slew of unforgettable moments, leading to an ending so grotesque and badass you won’t want to miss it. And you’ll probably never be the same after you’ve read it.

Like Huston, Bazell creates dialogue with a street cadence. It sounds real, and even more importantly, it sounds cool. Really cool. Like you can use it to impress your friends. Make them think you’re clever. Coupled with the odd-fact weirdness popularized by Palahniuk, and Beat the Reaper makes for a unique and humorous read. The mob and medicine have never been this engaging together.

Last Word:
Stunning debuts like Beat the Reaper do one thing-leave you wanting more. Like a kid stomping his foot, impatiently. More Pietro Brwna, more streetwise dialogue, more intense, heart-stopping action. More Josh Bazell. After this gem, people will be eagerly anticipating Bazell’s next novel. I know-I’m one of them. And that’s the first step, admitting the problem. Admitting you’re a Bazell-holic.

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