This is the kind of airport novel I used to read when I traveled a lot. Since then I’ve learned how to read literature with characters who develop self-awareness over time and stories that illuminate the human condition. I’m afraid that evolution spoiled my capacity to enjoy cartoony romps like this one, but I appreciate that there is an audience that wants and expects nothing more.
Beat the Reaper held my interest for a good 175 pages. The protagonist is a medical intern working at a big city hospital, in New York, I think. His secret is that he used to be a mafia hit man but after turning state’s witness, he graduated from the witness protection program into medical school. Bad luck then when one of his patients is a mob boss who recognizes him.
Much of the story is flashback, explaining how Dr. Brown got involved in the mob as a youth, how he was finally targeted by the mob and had to go undercover. None of it is believable or very different from a thousand other mob stories you’ve seen or read, and it destroys the pace of the much better present-day story.
The fun part of the book is the protagonist describing in viciously cynical detail the tense, crazy life of an intern in a hospital, on chronic sleep-deprivation, popping drugs, and avoiding writing anything in a patient’s chart that could be subpoenaed. It’s hilarious stuff and rings half-true. I especially liked notes like the explanation that all bottles of water in hospitals contain 5% glucose. That’s to avoid a billing line-item that says, “Liter of fucking tap water: $35.”
Unfortunately, that sharp humor made up only a fraction of the story, most of which is taken up by thick backstory until the halfway point, at which time everything turns to an elaborate chase with multiple shootouts, and even a shark attack. It’s as though the author ran out of story and lost his voice so just started making up the most ridiculous murder scenes he could think of – and there are some original murders, but none are believable or very funny, so who cares.
I finished the book, although after the midpoint when I realized I had seen all the author’s cards and nothing interesting was going to happen, the last half was a slog. But if you’re on a long flight with nothing else to do, this novel might keep you amused for a few hours.
Bazell, Josh. (2000). Beat the Reaper. New York: Back Bay/Little, Brown. (310 pp.).