Saturday, July 12, 2014

Book Reviews: Beat The Reaper

Beat the Reaper
by Josh Bazell
This book reminded me of Pest Control, The Catcher in the Rye, or a few other madcap satirical adventures. But it's also a biting critique of the health care system, a coming of age story, an Elmore Leonard style absurdist mob hijinks tale and one huge middle finger to anti-Semitism. That's a lot for one book but it flows well. The book was written by a doctor who also has a B.A. in English Literature. I don't know if the described details of hospital life would seem familiar to doctors or other people who are familiar with real life hospitals. 

Some of the displayed false concern for patients rang true to me from my brief experiences of hospital care. I imagine that anyone who is constantly making life or death decisions would find a way of achieving some distance from patients because otherwise how could they do their job? Bazell takes pains to point out that he's writing fiction. He writes that hopefully you're not going to rely on occasionally made up information for medical knowledge. 

This tale is told in first person and has some very funny parts mixed with real tragedy. Dr. Peter Brown is a sleep deprived, sarcastic, irritable and overworked (not that there's any other kind) intern at a Manhattan hospital. There's more to Dr. Brown than meets the eye as he is a little older, larger and rougher than the average intern. He can handle himself physically in a way that most men, doctors or not, simply can't. On Brown's trip to work a criminal attempts to mug him by placing a gun to his head. That criminal or "f***head" as Brown calls him makes a tremendous mistake. Brown easily maneuvers out of danger and disarms the mugger. Brown seriously injures his assailant via a combination of martial arts and medical knowledge but pulls back at the last second to avoid killing his attacker. Peter Brown is not just a doctor. Peter Brown is an Anglicized version of his real name "Pietro Brwna". "Brown" is a Jewish-Italian (he strongly identifies as Jewish) hitman, who having run permanently afoul of his Mafia employers in ways that are slowly revealed throughout the book, has joined the Witness Protection Program. 

However both Brown and the Feds are so thoroughly contemptuous of his former employer's retaliatory powers and intelligence that Brown hasn't bothered to leave NYC or do much to protect himself beside the modest name alteration and keeping a low profile.

This plan develops a big problem. On his shift Brown runs into an old Mafia associate, Eddy Squillante, who has been assigned to Brown as a patient. Both men are quite surprised to see each other. Squillante is suffering from stomach cancer. Squillante thinks Brown will seize the opportunity to get rid of him. As insurance against this Squillante quickly takes steps to provide that Brown's location and identity will be revealed in the event of Squillante's death. Brown probably would indeed have killed Squillante if he thought he could have gotten away with it but his incentives are now changed. Unfortunately for Brown, Squillante's surgery has been assigned to an out of hospital media savvy "rock star" doctor, Dr. Friendly. 

Dr. Friendly receives a lot of positive press coverage. However, according to Brown's med school mentor, Friendly is a near incompetent hack who's fond of inappropriate racist or sexist jokes and sexually harassing women. If Dr. Friendly operates on Squillante, it's goodbye Squillante. So Brown has some decisions to make. Brown's past is catching up with him in more ways than one. Brown also learns from Squillante that one of Brown's old enemies is not dead (Brown threw him out of a sixth floor window) but rather very much alive. He's looking for Brown so that he can show Brown that he doesn't hold grudges and wants to continue their relationship in the true Christian spirit of forgiveness. Yeah. Not. This man wants to gut Brown like a fish. 

Despite his former profession and somewhat cold persona (he describes his patients' shortcomings in graphic detail), Brown actually takes the Hippocratic oath quite seriously and refuses to leave the hospital until his shift is over, because that would hurt his patients and his fellow doctors, students and staff. 

Brown makes his shift rounds. He retraces his bad decisions. Such subjects as romance, racism, sex, adultery, malpractice, doctors, lawyers, anti-Semitism, hospital politics, flirty drug company reps, and know it all bosses are all wildly skewered. Whether it's Brown describing a patient as the one he currently hates the least or telling his boss that she's not boring him any more than usual there's a lot of droll offbeat humor here. You'll laugh out loud at reading some things before realizing your humor was likely inappropriate. 
If you can accept the premise of a Mob hitman who has become a skilled doctor, this is a oft humorous book. It's made more so by the footnotes and Brown's asides to himself. You can see the great tragedy of Brown's life coming before he reveals it but it will kick you in your gonads anyway. The humor gradually drops away and the book's tone becomes darker near the ending. This is a taut story at about 300 pages.
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