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September 9, 2008 / schulerbooks

Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell

An average day at the hospital: beat the stuffings out of some mugger, get molested by a drug rep in the elevator, take some of the product to keep up and awake… and then find out your new patient is someone who knew you back THEN, when they called you “Bear Claw” and you did people in for the Mob. And once he learns it’s you, he fixes it so that if he dies, they’ll know where you are. Oh, and he’s pretty much terminal at this point, hoping for a “celebrity” surgeon to save him.

Worried yet?

Well, you should be — especially if you’re in witness protection, hiding from your former employers. Especially since you did something on your way out that would make every member want to collect your head. And especially since the “celebrity” surgeon the patient’s depending on is an incompetent show-off.

Yes, you should be worried. But what else can you do but go on with your day? There’s patients to help (kind of) and mysteries to solve (hopefully) and lots of pharmaceutical samples to snort to keep you from crashing on what might be the most important day of your new life. Maybe your last.

My boss (that would be Rhoda) handed me a copy of this because, since I loved ‘Crooked Little Vein‘ and ‘Severance Package,’ she had a good idea I’d probably like this as well. And I did – a lot. What initially comes across as a cynical hospital tale with ultra-violent overtones soon reveals itself to be a funny, heartbreaking and gross tale of betrayal, redemption and escape.

The focal character’s past — mob murder, true love gained and lost, and super-hush-hush witness protection — is slowly unveiled as the current situation worsens, and we get a feel for his anger, his compassion, and his rather interesting sense of right and wrong. All that plus a hilarious and harrowing peek into what goes on in modern hospitals, a conundrum that could have come off an episode of “House,” and one of the more harrowing “mob hits gone wrong” that I’ve read.

Realistic? No, not really — so much goes on that I can’t really buy the total package of the premise. But the story itself is so rewarding that, in spite of its small imperfections (sometimes the past goes on for so long that the present seems an afterthought) such details are quite happily overlooked. It also gets a gold star for what has to be the most unnervingly masochistic, jaw-dropping climaxes ever, as the hero figures out a way to defend himself from certain death at the hands of a “friend” turned enemy using only… himself.

While not perfect, this debut novel will have you laughing and rooting for its hero from the first page. It may also have you wanting to avoid hospitalization altogether. Look for it January 7th, 2009.

(Reviewed by Jim Tremlett, Eastwood)

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