Don't fear the reaper
Mob stories aren't usually my thing. Much as I can appreciate the writing and acting that went into The Sopranos I usually can't make it through an entire episode. And I'm probably one of the very few who has never been able to sit through a Godfather movie. So imagine my surprise when I not only read Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell but ended up loving it as well.
I think my deal-breakers in most mob efforts are the acts of random violence being done. I don't actually mind fictional criminal on criminal violence or even the violence that is done in pursuit of some other crime. What gets me every time is when some innocent bystander gets beaten to a pulp with a trash can (Sopranos) or shot in the foot (Goodfellas) just because the mob guy feels like it or wants to prove how tough he is. Contrary as it is, when I get to one of those scenes, I'm out. I think Bazell's book worked - not just because of it's humor and cleverness - but because the protagonist, Pietro "Bearclaw" Brnwa (aka Dr. Peter Brown) seems to feel the same way that I do.
Beat the Reaper opens with Pietro/Peter getting mugged on his way to work. This turns out to be a very bad beginning to an even worse day at Manhattan Catholic Hospital. As an Intern Peter already has enough shit thrown his way from day to day. But walking in to find that one of his new patients is former mob colleague Eddy Squillante, aka Eddy Consul, just adds icing to the cruddy cake.
See, Pietro used to be a hired hitman for the mob. His quest to become a doctor didn't start until he was placed in the Witness Protection program after testifying against his former employers. Now his only hope is to make sure that Eddy stays alive. As long as he does, Eddy has promised not to let anyone know how to find Bearclaw. Of course nothing goes according to plan and by days' end Pietro will not only have to fight for his life but figure out just what he wants that life to be.
Brazell's debut is hilarious and scary and sad at turns. And as narrator, Pietro is about as down-to-earth relatable as any mob hitman turned overworked and overmedicated intern could ever be. His comments about both medicine and the mob are equal parts caustic cynicism and spot-on commentary.
On Medicine "All the world loves a code, because you get to act like you're on television. Even if you don't get to yell 'Clear!' with the defibrillator paddles, you might get to squeeze the respirator bag, or inject drugs handed to you by nurses from out of the crash cart. Also, people come from all over the hospital--not just from Medicine, for whom it's mandatory--so it's a great opportunity to socialize. And if the person who called the code did it because the patient is actually crashing, you might even save someone's life, and justify your awful career choice."
On the Mob "When Sicilians began to immigrate to the U.S. in the early twentieth century...the mafia followed to keep sucking their blood. During Prohibition the mob did something arguably socially useful, but when that ended they returned to blackmailing people with the threat of violence full-time. A Roman history fetishist named Sal 'Little Caesar' Manzaro even started a private army, using Italianized Roman rank names like capodecini and consiglieri, and life in New York got so bad the Feds finally became interested."
Cynical, smart and funny is Pietro Brnwa. And that pretty much describes Beat the Reaper as well.