The Short Version: Peter Brown, a resident at a dingy Manhattan hospital, is having a rough day. He was the victim of an attempted mugging on the way to work – he beat the guy up pretty good and brought him into the ER on his way to the office. He’s got ridiculous patients, students, and attendings… and to top it all off, one of his patients is a former connection of his from his mob days. So now he’s in a race to keep this guy alive long enough to make sure the rest of his old connections don’t come a-calling, especially since he was last seen tossing his former best friend out a sixth-story window….
The Review: This book has a pull-quote from the stellar Lisa Lutz on the back and the paperback edition has a wonderful little drawing of a reaper fellow on it. For some reason, though, I always thought this was a “guy actually fights against Death” story and every time I’d read the summary, I would be disappointed. But then I heard about Wild Thing, the sequel which apparently involves cryptozoology, and I knew I had to give this a shot. Plus, Barnes & Noble always suckers me in when they’ve got hardcovers on sale for like $2.
Firstly, before I forget about it, let me address the reaper drawings in the book. This is a little quirk about the book but perhaps my favorite thing in the entire book. And I don’t mean to belittle the rest of the book – but it is this attention to detail that makes me such a fan of Bazell’s creation. So it starts out that each section marker isn’t the typical *** or anything like that: it’s a little reaper with a scythe. But at one point, rambling about something, our main character (Bearclaw/Brnwa/Brown) mentions that we still hold onto this antiquated idea of the reaper and in reality he’d be driving a riding tractor today. Sure enough, the reaper drawing from then on out is riding a tractor. It’s hilarious and inspired and it’s that little attention to detail that makes an otherwise rather ordinary book rise above and be something a little more.
The book is relatively by-the-numbers in terms of plot. It’s an intro story, for sure: we get the dual storylines, detailing our hero in his present and how he got to this point. We see his mob initiation story and how the mob eventually turned on him… we see his childhood vendetta and why that brought him into the mob… we see him in love… and we see him doing his rounds and dealing with this crazy shit in the hospital. There’s nothing wildly surprising about anything: we know mostly how it’s going to end, although the actual details are occasionally not what you expected. I didn’t expect the shark-filled denouement of the more youthful story and I didn’t expect the almost-House-like medical savvy our dear Pietro brings to bear even as he’s dealing with a team of mobsters coming after him. Indeed, the House-esque savant that peeks out of Brnwa’s tough exterior now and then is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the character. I’d say that it doesn’t fit… but I think, actually, it does. We just haven’t seen how the whole thing comes together yet. I think his brusque exterior doesn’t necessarily contradict the super-intelligent doctor but rather that we just didn’t have much time to see the super-intelligent doctor because he was so busy being brusque. Savvy?
Indeed, if I have a complaint, it is that: the book is over so fast. I know, I just said that wasn’t really a problem and that this is obviously an origin story so no big thing… but I wanted more. I wanted more to the point of being unhappy that I didn’t have it. I could run out and buy the second book now but I’ve got a stacked-enough to-read list at the moment that cryptozoology can take a bit of a backseat. It’s about this particular book. The whip-smart voice that comes out of this med student (yes, Bazell was a med student doing his residency when he wrote this) is fantastic. The footnotes are sharp and to the point – very much of the Pratchettian variety. The violence is clear and crisp, the dialogue snappy and realistic. And it’s funny. There are times that it’s a bit gross too – like using a fibula as a knife, getting jabbed by a needle filled with… something…, etc. But even then, Bazell seems to know exactly how ridiculous this could all be and so he just treats it like it’s laid out in the operating theatre and this is how it is. You never feel like he’s taking it too seriously or like he’s playing this for laughs: it’s just very much how it is – and that works so well. It feels real even as you feel like it could never actually happen.
Rating: 4 out of 5. An excellent and auspicious debut. I wish there was more and I’m certainly looking forward to the sequel – but for now, I’m pleasantly pleased by how this book works. It isn’t anything totally revelatory, as it sits comfortably in the vein of novels like those by the fantastic Ms. Lutz… but it doesn’t need to be. It’s just a damn fun time and an origin story that (I hope) will spawn many more entertaining adventures.