During my recent lunch with author Richard Montanari, Emma Finnigan, Random House UK’s publicity director, quietly slipped into my bag what turned out to be a very interesting novel: Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell. As it happens, it’s a book I had first read about in The Rap Sheet. As Linda L. Richards wrote on this page:
And Harlan Coben nailed it in his blurb for the book: “fast, fun, furious, fierce.” Which somehow catches the tone and spirit of Beat the Reaper much better than a whole lot more words would do. I have a feeling this is one of the ones we’ll be talking about all year.Checking around on the Web a bit, I discovered that Reaper was the subject of a rather large deal back in 2007, with publishers Little, Brown (in the States) and William Heinemann (in the UK) hoping this medical thriller of sorts would prove to be a winner. The novel certainly has an engaging premise. Peter Brown is a medical intern working in the emergency room of a New York City hospital. He’s also a man with secrets. Deadly ones. Which is why he’s currently in the U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program. Brown’s history is revealed in flashbacks over the course of the narrative, exposed like a congealed wound being stripped of its dressing. It seems that Bazell’s protagonist used to be a hit man, Pietro “The Bearclaw” Brnwa. He got into the murder-for-hire business as a teenager, after his own family was killed by mooks who were trying to get a leg up in organized crime. After exacting revenge on his family’s slayers--thanks to some assistance from a mob attorney whose son, affectionately referred to as “Skinflick,” Peter had gotten to know--our “hero” wins jobs working with the bent-nose set in New Jersey. Finally, though, he decides to get out of the biz and acquire a new identity, under which he begins training for a medical career on the opposite side of the Hudson River. However, one night Brown runs into a dying mobster at the hospital, who recognizes him. Not unexpectedly, this leads to trouble. Lots of it.
Hip, violent, and funny, Beat the Reaper is a very engaging and furiously fast read. It has an interesting view on life and death, and is not merely frothy entertainment. It has heart.
Reviews of the novel elsewhere have been mixed. In Entertainment Weekly, Benjamin Svetkey wrote that “Bazell lays on the Sam Spade shtick a bit thick in places, and his plot takes some really preposterous twists ... But he also has a mischievous sense of humor, especially when it comes to medicine.” Won over by the novel’s combination of “gore and cleverness,” The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Michael Kroner called it “an exhilarating story ... Read this book for the excitable 17-year-old boy in you. He’ll thank you for it.” Meanwhile, in Bookgasm, Cameron Hughes complained that Bazell’s characters are shallow and that too many genre conventions slip into this story (“If crime fiction is to be believed, hit men are really rather nice. They have standards, like not killing women or innocent people. Peter is no exception, and I sighed when I got to that part. It’s an old cliché, and frankly, it’s tired.”). And The Drowning Machine’s Corey Wilde thinks that reading Reaper requires too much suspension of belief. Peter Brown, the blogger remarked in his review last month, “out-Bonds 007 in martial arts, weaponry, smarts, and pretty much any area you care to name. And he does it all without sleep and while high on ’scrips. What with Brown’s superhero fighting skills combined with his doctor-as-god smarts, the character grated on me. Brown isn’t too good to be true, he’s a hit man after all, but he is too much to be true.”
After reading Beat the Reaper for myself, I’m definitely more inclined to join in the chorus of approval led by another novelist, Matt Ruff, who wrote in The New York Times:
Bazell has a knack for breathing new life into the most timeworn genre conventions. We learn, for instance, that Brown first became a killer to avenge the murder of his grandparents. Grandma and Grandpa Brnwa weren’t your typical victims, however. Polish Jews, they were survivors of both Auschwitz and, before that, the Bialowieza Forest: “They and a bunch of other newly feral teenagers were hiding out in the snow and trying to kill off enough of the local Jew-hunting parties that the Poles would leave them alone. What this precisely involved they never told me, but it must have been pretty ferocious, because in 1943 Hermann Goering had a lodge at the southern end of Bialowieza where he and his guests dressed as Roman senators, and he must have been aware of the situation. There’s also the question of a straggler platoon of Hitler’s Sixth Army that disappeared in Bialowieza that winter en route to Stalingrad.”So energized was I by reading Bazell’s Reaper, that I contacted Random House and arranged to ask this young author a few things about his reading past, how his first novel made it into print, and the future adaptation of his story to the silver screen.
You can see how a family history like that might incline a guy to take revenge into his own hands. And the unfairness of the deaths--his grandparents survive the ultimate evil, only to be gunned down by a couple of punks from New Jersey--makes it even easier for Brown to make what he later acknowledges is the wrong choice.
Ali Karim: I was very impressed with your debut novel. So tell me, is this your first attempt at novel-writing?
Josh Bazell: Not even close, although it was my first attempt in about 10 years. I’ve wanted to be a novelist since I was 9, but got sidetracked into screen-writing for a while. So Beat the Reaper was something of a return to form. It’s the fifth novel I’ve finished. Most of the others I didn’t even try to get published.
AK: As I was reading your book, I wondered if you, like your intern “hero,” Peter Brown, have a medical background.
JB: I wrote Beat the Reaper during the last year of med school and the beginning of my internship. I’m now a resident in psychiatry, with a couple of more years to go.
AK: Tell us a little about your childhood. Were you always a reader, and if so, which books cast a shadow over your life?
JB: Yeah, I read constantly growing up, and before that my grandfather read to me. Arthur Conan Doyle and Lewis Carroll were early presences. Then I discovered then-modern books like Jaws and The Godfather and couldn’t believe people could write serious books with that much sex and violence, and I decided at that point to become a novelist. Lucky Jim was a huge influence also.
AK: So you come from a bookish family?
JB: Everybody read and there were books around. So yes, although I think I took it to an extreme.
AK: Do you read a lot of crime fiction or thrillers? And would you care to tell us which authors you would rate highly?
JB: I read primarily crime fiction and non-fiction. I finished [Aravind Adiga’s] The White Tiger yesterday--it was great. My favorite living crime writers are probably James Ellroy and Ken Bruen, though there are lot of others, like Joyce Carol Oates, who are close.
AK: How is it that you finally find your work in print?
JB: I thought Beat the Reaper might have enough appeal to someone other than myself to sell. A friend who’s a newspaper writer gave me the name of an agent, and I sent it off. I then continued being an intern and more or less forgot about it, but the agent who ended up representing the book picked it out of the slush pile and called me. That is a really stupid way to go about getting published, by the way.
AK: There is much humor as well as violence in your novel. How do you find the balance between the “hip” humor in the story and some of your nastier scenes?
JB: Gallows humor may not be worth hanging around a gallows for, but if you’re already there, at least it’s something.
AK: You use footnotes in Beat the Reaper, many of which are amusing. But aside from Nicholson Baker and the late David Foster Wallace, not many novelists footnote their works. Did you fear at all that it might break your readers’ concentration?
JB: I did worry about this, although I also sometimes use [footnotes] to break concentration intentionally, if I want the reader to particularly remember something. The compromise I made was to try to make them primarily just entertainment, so you can skip them without getting lost. That said, it would have been easy to take them out and put anything in them into the text itself, but I liked them and so did my U.S. editor, Reagan Arthur, so they stayed in.
AK: I hear that Beat the Reaper is the first book in a series. Did you realize that your debut novel would have such “legs”?
JB: Actually, I conceived the character in the context of the plot of what will be the second novel, then wrote Beat the Reaper to explain how he came about. It was a nice surprise to have people interested in what started out as a back story.
AK: And what’s this I hear about the sale of film rights to Reaper?
JB: Film rights have been optioned by New Regency (who just made Marley and Me) and Appian Way (which is Leonardo di Caprio’s company). Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.
AK: This new book is a real slice of New York City, and the scenes at Coney Island are especially evocative of that area. But I understand ou live in San Francisco. Are you a frequent bi-coastal traveler?
JB: I grew up in New York, and get back there pretty frequently.
AK: What books have passed over your reading table recently?
JB: My reading table is looking a bit crazy recently, since I’ve been visiting a lot of bookstores and also get sent a lot of books now. As I said before, I read mostly crime fiction (with a noir/pulp focus) and non-fiction. The best non-fiction book I’ve read recently is Out of Mao’s Shadow, by Philip Pan. Absolutely inspiring.
AK: I just want to thank you again for taking time out of your schedule to answer a few of my questions.
JB: Thanks for your interest, and for reading. And please note that when Skinflick starts his record label in the book, it’s called Rap Sheet Records.
READ MORE: “Interview: Josh Bazell--Under the Penknife,” by Claire Prentice (The Scotsman); “Interview with Josh Bazell” (Three Guys, One Book); “Novelist Josh Bazell Explores the Pre-sell Tour,” by Jason Boog (GalleyCat).