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"A mafia assassin-turned-doctor fights for his life." This is the shortest synopsis possible. (Thanks go to the Washington Post).
Pietro Brwna, aka Bearclaw, aka Dr. Peter Brown leads the reader through the eight most crucial hours of his life. Of course, given that thrillers belong to the category of realistic literature and that the story is told from the first-person perspective, we know that he'll survive them. Yet, what he goes through and what happened before is so outrageous, spine-chilling and hair-raising that one can't but be thrilled.
Pietro is 15 years old when his grandparents, who raised him, are killed by two thugs who need a killing as an entrance ticket to the Mafia. His uncle adopts him so that he doesn't have to live in state care but isn't interested in him, forthwith he is on his own. He befriends Adam Locano at school, the Locanos become his ersatz family. Mr Locano is a lawyer and belongs to the New Jersey Mob, he helps Pietro find the killers. Adam kills them, and it doesn't take long until he becomes a highly successful contract killer for the Mafia.
But eventually Pietro and Adam fall out with each other and one day Pietro throws Adam out of a sixth-floor window. This and other events make him change the course of his life and enter a witness protection programme which helps him go to medical school and become a doctor at Manhattan Catholic hospital.
This new life runs smoothly for a while but changes from one minute to the next when a patient, a Mobster with stomach cancer, recognises him. He makes a deal with Pietro: you do everything to keep me alive and I won't tell on you. This is where the story sets in, Pietro tells us what happens then and intersperses his account with flashbacks of his past explaining why and how things developed the way they did.
So this is a thriller. Yes, indeed, and a hard-core one as that, one reviewer counted fourteen corpses plastering Pietro's way. But it gets some depth when we learn that Pietro's grandparents' random death was kind of ridiculous considering the fact that they survived Auschwitz half a century ago. This doesn't excuse anything, of course, but we can't but see Pietro's decision to kill the killers in a different light. Later, however, when Pietro has drawn us into his struggle to survive, the carpet of sympathy we thought we were standing on is pulled from under our feet and nothing is as it seemed to be.
What makes the novel striking are Pietro's bizarre and brutal adventures. For example, Adam has Pietro, his girl-friend and her brother put into the shark tank of the New York Aquarium (before his fall from the window). Pietro and the girl succeed in keeping themselves away from the sharks which are occupied with the girl's brother and while they're waiting for help have sex which requires some gymnastic exercises, of course. Or the climax at the end of the story: Pietro is locked in the freezer of the hospital, where the blood bottles are stored, naked bar a hospital gown with his private parts frozen to the floor. He survives, but how? The plan he concocts can only work because he has medical knowledge.
As does the author, Josh Bazell. He studied literature and medicine - a combination I've never heard of before - and wrote his debut novel while completing his medical residency at a hospital in San Francisco. The novel has really two story-lines, one is the Mafioso-turned-doctor one and the other is the run-down hospital. Patients are neglected and staff are incompetent, they're all freaks, both full of drugs, the first of prescribed ones, the latter of stolen ones. The medical aspect is so horrid that one can only pray never to be a patient in such an institution.
Dr Peter Brown is also a pedagogue interested in furthering the knowledge of the readers. In footnotes he explains the medical side of things, so, for example, when he's taking down a guy with a knife, he interrupts himself to explain the trajectory of his left hand, "If it hits, it will crush the fragile rings of cartilage that keep his trachea open against the vacuum of breathing in. Next time he tries, his windpipe will clench shut like an anus, leaving him Reaper Time minus maybe six minutes. Even if I ruin my Propulsatil pen trying to trache him."
At the very beginning we're informed in detail about the anatomy of the arm and learn that the leg is constructed in nearly the same way. This information is taken up again in the final scene. I bet that not even orthopaedists can guess how Pietro uses this knowledge to his advantage. An ingenious and utterly weird idea.
I used to read loads of thrillers when I was younger, now I only do so occasionally. My attitude towards the genre is positive, I like a well-constructed story and enjoy a fast pace. I like bizzareness and sick humour, so this novel should be just up my street. And yet, it isn't. I knew already after some pages that it wasn't my beer (as the Germans say), but I made myself read up to the end in order to find out why there's such a hype.
I had read an enthusiastic review in a German newspaper and then found an ad in a most unlikely place. Passengers in German far-distance trains find a leaflet with the timetable of the train on their seats distributed by the Deutsche Bahn (German Trains) and paid for by ads. The last time I was on such a train I found the ad for the German edition of Beat The Reaper on the front page of the leaflet. So someone must be of the opinion that the novel is recommendable for the average German train traveller.
I beg to be excluded! What puts me off is the exaggerated vulgarity. Of course, from a linguistic point of view it's interesting to see that the F word can be used in all possible grammatical forms, as a noun, a verb, an adjective, a present participle, a past participle, as the first part of a compound noun and as an interjection. But I'm a fast learner, I don't have to see the proof several times on one page. I'm glad that I read the novel in English as this is a foreign language for me and thusly not so close to my heart as my mother tongue. I wouldn't have been able to finish it in German. I find the vulgarity more off-putting than the brutality, here the exaggeration tilts over into the ridiculous which suits the story.
In my opinion this is a book for young machos, real ones and wannabe ones and older men who haven't got over their puberty yet - and their women. I'm sure that no man in his right mind reads chick lit but I'm also sure that there are women who read literature targeted at men. Now, either the novel sells well because the ad machinery runs so well (as is the case with the Paul Coelho novels) or there are more real and wannabe machos than I knew of. If one of those reviewed the novel, he would give it five stars for sure, but from me it gets only three stars.
The Amazon.com Sales Rank is: 3,952 in Books. The Brits aren't as macho as the Americans or the ad campaign isn't as good, the Amazon.co.uk Sales Rank is: 31,917 in Books. In Germany up to now only the hardcover version is available, it has reached the Sales Rank 1,276 in Books. Gosh! (Or many Germans travel by train).
From the net: Beat the Reaper is being adapted into a film . . . New Regency has placed the adaptation into the hands of Brian Koppelman and David Levien. The film has Di Caprio's name attached to it to star, but that doesn't seem to be official (yet).