I am not, by nature, a reader of pulp fiction. I’m a science fiction junkie, and though that genre sometimes veers into pulp territory, it rarely has the crime noir association that winds up in a Tarantino film or a Frank Miller graphic novel.
But I do like to mix things up now and then, and when I came across Josh Bazell’s debut novel Beat the Reaper last summer, I found myself compelled to give it a spin. I was not disappointed. In fact, I’d say that Beat the Reaper was my hands-down favorite book last year, and it was up against some strong contenders (like my first runner-up, Ready Player One.) Beat the Reaper is, in a nutshell, brilliant and highly entertaining. It’s a kinetic story that checks every box you want on an absolute page-turner that you can’t put down. Since it’s the set up for the book I’m about to review, I’ll briefly recap: the story opens with the mugging of the main character, Dr. Peter Brown (né Pietro Brnwa) and it doesn’t go according to plan.
Even at five in the morning, I’m not the kind of guy you mug. I look like an Easter Island sculpture of a longshoreman. But the fuckhead can see the blue scrub pants under my overcoat, and the ventilated green plastic clogs, so he thinks I’ve got drugs and money on me. And maybe that I’ve taken some kind of oath not to kick his fuckhead ass for trying to mug me.
I barely have enough drugs and money to get me through the day. And the only oath I took, as I recall, was to first do no harm. I’m thinking we’re past that point.
Dr. Brown then goes on to describe with clinical precision the inherent structural weaknesses of the human arm, which he proceeds to exploit. Methodically. The good doctor, you see, is a former Mafia hit man and martial artist, and the addition of detailed anatomical knowledge of the sort a physician possesses only makes him more dangerous. Why has he become a doctor at all, you ask? Well, because the Mafia is out to get him, and he needed a good cover for witness protection. After all, you never go against the family.
Bazell started with a writing degree, but like any good overachiever, he wrote Beat the Reaper while finishing medical school. It has the intelligence and precision you’d expect if, say, Dr. Gregory House were a real person, from Brooklyn, who passed the time writing novels about doctors who kick ass while mastering the art of pithy comebacks, illuminating footnotes, and clever violence. It’s as crass as you might expect – this isn’t delicate subject matter – and the book easily packs in more F-bombs than The Big Lebowski. Which is a lot, in case you felt like checking. If you have an aversion to profanity, overt sexual innuendo, violence, or amazing writing, you should steer clear of Bazell’s books. To wit: this is an author who has his main character describe himself as follows: “I look like a dick with a fist on the end of it.” If that sort of descriptive language doesn’t throw you off, then you’ll want to get right to Beat the Reaper and then hurry up and dig into the sequel, Wild Thing, which is (believe it or not) the subject of this review.
Wild Thing picks up just a few short years after Beat the Reaper leaves off. Dr. Brnwa, now using the assumed name of Dr. Lionel Azimuth, is no longer in WITSEC. Since the mob managed to catch up to him anyway (he escaped), he’s working his way up to finding them instead, and that means living on the lam on his own terms. Which, for the present moment, involves working as a physician on a cruise ship, extracting the rotten teeth of South American crew members and treating virtually everyone for STDs. The Love Boat lives on, and Brnwa hates every minute of it.
He’s soon recruited, however, through his brilliant and mysterious WITSEC mentor, to pay a visit to a reclusive billionaire (referred to only by the nickname Rec Bill, naturally) who wants him to do a job.
The job? Accompany and protect a young, sexy (of course!) paleontologist on Rec Bill’s payroll, Dr. Violet Hurst, on a mission to discover whether there is, in fact, a Loch Ness Monster-esque creature in Minnesota’s White Lake. Supposedly it’s been eating local livestock, domesticated animals, and the limbs of anyone getting too close to the water. We also know from the prologue (though our protagonists do not) that it’s been munching on teenagers partying on the water.
Sound far fetched? It is, and it’s an odd setting to stick a character peeled from the intricately woven framework of one of the most finely crafted action/thrillers I’ve ever read. The connection between Brnwa and the events and characters of this story is so tenuous, you just have to make the jump in suspension of disbelief and get on with it. It almost has the feeling of an alternate universe story, where the creators of well-loved comic book characters play a big fat game of “what if” and stick their heroes in weird and unexpected timelines to see what happens.
But if it isn’t as good as Beat the Reaper, it still works. Mostly because Bazell is a genius writer who just can’t put together a boring paragraph. Brnwa (aka Brown, aka Azimuth) is an unusually fun character. He’s the bad guy who is really a good guy with a heart of gold (and hands that should be registered as lethal weapons) that you just can’t help rooting for when the chips are down. Violet Hurst is less enjoyable, and a tease to boot, but she and Brwna share enough interesting dialogue that you forgive her for it. That and the fact that you can’t help trying to imagine a woman who has “Bettie Page bangs” who also “looks like a pin-up. A pin-up who can box.”
The other characters in Wild Thing come across as mostly two-dimensional. They’re a bit like icebergs, though: vaguely interesting on the surface, but mostly unexplored depth. You get the feeling that they could have been fleshed out into something really interesting, but they’re all just so ancillary to the Brnwa/Hurst banter that they never quite make it there. That said, in a book about an ex-Mafia hit man turned doctor hanging out with a paleontologist who looks “like Wonder Woman” who join a group of rich people on an adventure tour in search of an American lake monster that eats people (take a breath now if you’re reading aloud) you’re not really looking for profound character development. You’re looking for a good time – and you get one.
And just wait until you find out who the referee of the big adventure is. You want to talk about alternate universes and intrusions upon the suspension of disbelief? You’ll never see it coming, I can tell you that. Chances are, though, you’ll be amused by it. At least if you’re the kind of person who will read a book like this.
A couple more quibbles. For starters, Bazell is an author who, for all his talent, telegraphs his punches. There’s a section in Wild Thing where our two protagonists get into a rather Freudian discussion about the problem with Scooby-Doo. I’ll skip the S&M theories about Daphne and Velma, and focus on this bit, where the dialogue reads like an easter egg synopsis of the story itself. Like a metaphor within a metaphor:
“Can I come?”
“Sleep. I’ll be be back before you wake up. I’ll get gas for the Mystery Machine.”
She grinds her palms into her eyes. “Don’t say that. I hate Scooby-Doo.”
I should leave.
“Why?” I say.
“The fucking monster always turns out to be fake. It’s always just some loser in glow-in-the dark paint, trying to steal money from a yuppie who doesn’t even know the money exists.”
There is a point near the conclusion of the White Lake Monster mystery where Bazell reveals, Scooby-style, an old man in a monster mask. The only thing missing is the exclamation, “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!” (Whether or not he’s actually behind the White Lake Monster or just a distraction from the real thing is something you’ll have to read the book to find out.)
Another quibble. There is a quote, attributed to one of several authors but popularized by S.M. Stirling, which should be born in mind by the novelist: “There is a technical term for someone who confuses the opinions of a character in a book with those of the author. That term is idiot.”
This only holds true if the author holds the line on ideological deniability. Bazell, on the other hand, disregards this maxim with relish. The left-wing ideology that bleeds through in the characters and characterizations in Wild Thing isn’t overwhelming, but it is obvious. Hurst is a climate change fatalist. A particular right-wing character is portrayed in an even more foolish light than even their real life antics paint them. A Christian minister solicits a prostitute. A couple of wealthy fundamentalists get into a stupid argument against the theory of evolution, which they lose in a humiliating fashion. These ideological constructs in some cases fit the characters as they’ve been developed, and in others are jarring to the narrative. But what really kills the illusion that the characters may not be channeling the views of the author is the appendix. Entitled, CANDIDATES FOR POINT OF NO RETURN ON CLIMATE CHANGE and WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT NOW (by Violet Hurst), this Appendix is a literal diatribe, that ranges across topics political, environmental, and even conspiratorial, all from a far-left perspective. Considering that this appendix adds absolutely nothing to the story, and is tacked on awkwardly at the end, it strikes me as a very bad idea.
Personally, my political and religious philosophies exclude me from the choir
Bazell Hurst is preaching to. That said, I’m a grownup, and I not only recognize the reality of other viewpoints, but I have respect for people who come by them honestly. I consider many of these individuals friends. I can have civil conversations with people who don’t see the universe the way I do, but not everyone thinks like me. As a writer, I know I can’t keep the themes I care about out of my work, but I want to be sure they aren’t presented in such a heavy-handed fashion that they turn off people who disagree with me but might otherwise enjoy my stories. In my opinion, that’s just bad business, but I sense that Bazell (in a manner reminiscent of Brnwa himself) just really doesn’t give a crap. It annoyed me, but it didn’t derail the entertainment value of the story for me. YMMV.
In any event, Wild Thing ends on a note that leaves you hungry for more. It’s the perfect setup for a third book, which, hopefully, will veer away from the underdeveloped (but still enjoyable) campiness of Wild Thing and return to the guns and glory awesomeness of Beat the Reaper.
A few technical notes: I pounded through this book in three days, switching up between my paper copy and the audiobook. Robert Petkoff does the audiobook reading, and let me just stop for a moment right now and talk about what an absolutely perfect job he does bringing Brnwa to life. His vocal style is sardonic, dispassionate, kinetic. There’s just a tone he invokes that says, “I cannot adequately express to you what a badass I am, and how above all of this I continue to be.” I can’t read a sentence of Beat the Reaper or Wild Thing without hearing his voice. In fact, I couldn’t write this review without hearing it. If you’re not the sort of person who shudders at the idea of listening to a book instead of sitting down and reading it, get the audiobook. The experience is, in my opinion, infinitely more enjoyable. If you get both, beware. The audiobook is unabridged, but the text is different in a number of places (it feels like the fruit of revisions, not omissions) and it’s noticeable if you read along with the audio.
I’d like to thank Justin Levine at Hachette Book Group for my review copy. Mitch Kelly at Hachette had also planned on sending me a copy of the audiobook, but I haven’t received it yet so I went with a library copy. I’m extremely grateful nonetheless, and will happily add it to my personal library all the same. As father of five, I don’t have a lot of disposable income to fuel my book fetish, and these publisher review copies are a life saver for me so that I can adequately review and get books in the hands of others.
Steve Skojec is a storyteller, writer, blogger, photographer, designer, and sci-fi fan. He is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. He lives in Arizona with his wife Jamie and six of their seven children.