Beat the Reaper
I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell.
We’ve been ranting about this book on and off for a couple of months and here it is my vote for best book of the year. Josh Bazell was a medical student with an idea for a character an ex-hit man for the mob who becomes a doctor in the crappiest hospital in New York to try and atone for his many crimes. It could have been simple. But it was Dr. Brown’s backstory that kept Bazell up nights and turned this book his first away from the standard snarkily quipping narrator and his chic-ly ultra violent exploits into…something else. I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what. Can you root for a character who killed people for a living? A lot of people? Can you forgive him? And of course, can he forgive himself? I defy you to read this book or listen to the audiobook and not care passionately about what happens to Peter Brown. Certainly, the action is outrageously over the top scenes in a shark tank spring to mind and the violence is sometimes hard to stomach. But it should be said that the violence flows from the mob kids and low-level thugs Peter grew up with, but also from an uncaring and worse medical and pharmaceutical industry. Because remember, Peter is now a doctor. He has some new enemies sometimes cancer, sometimes paperwork. He may be a hardcase who will kill you quick if you threaten him, but after he administers the beat down, he’ll carry you to the emergency room himself. The warring impulses between defend and destroy crackle off the page.
The book begins when an acquaintance winds up in the ER and recognizes Dr. Brown from his old life, and promptly drops a dime on him.Ê Peter has to save himself, the squealer, and a couple of patients before his day is over. But how did he get where he is? The answers in the time-shifting narrative take us past the fate of his one true love, (it ain’t pretty) his childhood, his beloved Jewish grandparents and beyond, and when Peter goes to the Old World to find out what happened during the war, the scenes in the death camps are unforgettable. Again, not the violence you’d expect.
I’m afraid I’ve made Beat the Reaper sound grim and depressing, and while the section set in Poland is REALLY UPSETTING, Peter is a hugely intelligent wise ass and maybe the funniest hit man-turned-doctor you’ll ever meet. His level of bad-assery is epic. His struggle to be a good man in a bad world was riveting. And the last scene almost made me pass out, and I am not kidding. This is a character and a book I will never forgot.