Right from the very first page, you just know that Beat the Reaper (Back Bay, 336 pp.), by Josh Bazell, is not going to be your run of the mill book. Peter Brown, a doctor on his way to work, is mugged. Or, at least someone attempts to mug the good doctor. Brown immediately explains to us in excruciating detail how he unarms the assailant. He takes great care to describe what bones and muscles are affected when pressed in certain areas and how certain bones in the leg are similar to bones in the arm. All fascinating stuff, really. He even has very interesting use of footnotes. Of course, Brown gets away and makes it to work.
While making rounds at Manhattan’s worst hospital, we meet several of Dr. Brown’s patients, all very colorful and fascinating people. One patient in particular, Eddy Squillante, AKA Eddie Consol, a mob wiseguy, immediately recognizes Brown as former hitman Pietro Brnwa, and here’s where the real fun starts.
The story travels back several years to when Pietro was best friends with Adam “Skinflick” Locano, a mob lawyer’s son. Bazell flawlessly moves back and forth between then and now, progressing the flashbacks until time “catches up”. In the interim, Brwna becomes quite an accomplished hitman for the elder Locano until a dispute causes him to throw Skinflick out a 6th story window.
This ultimately endears Brwna to no one and effectively ends his life as a mobster. It also leads him to the Witness Protection Program, which is how he goes from hitman to med school. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end, and Dr. Brown’s comes when he walks into Mr. Squilllante’s hospital room.
Squillante has stomach cancer and is about to die. He makes Brown an offer he can’t refuse: As it turns out, Locano didn’t die when Brwna tossed him out that window and he’s been looking for him ever since. Fix him so he lives a while longer and he keeps his mouth shut. Or he dies and his friends start making calls to Locano letting him know where Brown is.
If you can suspend your belief long enough (would a couple really have oral sex in a shark tank that the mob just dumped them in to kill them because their adrenaline was so high), this is a fun, exciting book with lots of twists and turns. The climactic scene is different than any you will have ever read, but again, belief will have to take a brief vacation.
The footnotes are used liberally throughout the book to explain, expound, and act as your friend whispering in your ear. They are almost always interesting. At times they are pretty useful. At other times they are just distracting. What makes them even more interesting is that Bazell is an actual doctor. According to his bio, he received his MD from Columbia (the University, not the country), so his footnotes carry a little more weight. At the same time, we can probably (hopefully) surmise that he was never a mob hitman, but you never know.
Beat the Reaper is not the book you want to be reading if you are in the hospital recuperating from surgery, or waiting for a loved one in surgery, or even while you’re eating for that matter. But if you’re on the train on your way to or from work, or a layover in an airport, or sitting at the mall waiting for your significant other to finish shopping, it’s perfect.