Audiobook Review: Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell

27th February 2012

*I bought this book from Audible.

Sex, violence, and new, brilliant heights of using the “f” word, Beat the Reaper is the avant-garde dark and darker comedy thriller (is that such a thing?) about Pietra Brnwa/Dr. Peter Brown/Bearclaw, a doctor who, as a member of the Witness Protection Program, has a past, a past he tells about between popping pills, checking on patients, and trying to figure out the guy with stomach cancer who has just blown his cover. As a teen, Brnwa’s grandparents are brutally murdered, and he figures out they were a hit for new mafia members being “made.” He trains in martial arts, befriends the son of a well-known mafia member, and ingratiates himself to the family. And by family, yes, I mean the family. Brnwa is selective, though, only taking hits he feels are justified: no women, no children, and he kills only after verifying the guy is scum. But the mob has ways of turning the tables and when Pietra wants out, the mob isn’t ready to let go. When they try to catch up to him, Brnwa realizes he isn’t ready to sacrifice his current life to run from the problems he created.

Bazell’s novel is alternately shocking, gag-inducing, hilarious, and intensely suspenseful. Brnwa narrates his story, talking directly to the reader, like he’s chatting in a bar. No holds barred. You can’t help but like him even though he is everything you should hate: a drugged-out, sexist, violent, killer asshole. But he’s funny…in a sick and twisted sort of way:

The fifth or sixth room I enter is that of Duke Mosby, easily the patient I currently hate least. He’s a ninety-year-old black male in for diabetes complications that now include gangrene of both feet. He was one of ten black Americans who served in Special Forces in World War II, and in 1944 he escaped from Colditz. Two weeks ago he escaped from this very room at Manhattan Catholic Hospital. In his underpants. In January. Hence the gangrene.

Plus, he’s so damn truthful. I’d be tempted to say he’s an unreliable narrator because he swallows so many drugs during his shift I lost count, but there are also these moments where he’s so lucid and spot on, like when he compares humans to animals:

It’s a weird curse, when you think about it. We’re built for thought, and civilization, more than any other creature we’ve found. And all we really want to be is killers.

Brnwa isn’t what you expect him to be. At all. Neither is this book, and I swear to you, I’m not joking when I say it’s one of the most graphic, most obscene (in language) books I’ve read, but I absolutely loved it. Robert Petkoff narrates, and between the writing and his voice, I thought it was one of the more perfect audiobooks I’ve bought. Petkoff matches Brnwa’s sardonic cynicism perfectly, and I couldn’t ask for a better audio experience.

Has anyone other than Elyse of Pop Culture Nerd read this? If so, what did you think? Have you ever read a book that is totally out of your comfort zone but that you loved?

  • Anonymous

    Our book twinage continues! I just started reading this last night – am about 50 pages in, and even though you know I have been suffering from intense book apathy, I am enjoying it. Even though mafia books are definitely not my thing… I am loving the brash way Bazell goes about describing all things medical.

    • Oh good. I guess I’ve never really read any mafia books, but I’ve always been fascinated by the mob in general. This book is CRAZY. Wait until you get to the end. Then we must talk.

  • Elyse/Pop Culture Nerd

    I don’t like mafia books, either, or protags who are drugged out, but we already talked about how this broke boundaries and we have no choice but to love it.

    Thanks for linking to my review!

    • Yes. Totally helpless when it comes to this book. Loved it.

      And gladly!

  • Hrmmm. I tried to listen to a book per my cousin’s recommendation the other day but I had to turn it off because of the graphic bedroom scenes (and I am not a prude). But both you and Jill/Fizzy have raved about this one… Really–audio over paper? (I can do the graphic/obscene on paper but then you lose the auditory experience…)

    • This isn’t so much graphic sex wise, though there are some scenes that, though brief, are explicit, it’s more this one scene at the end. And it’s graphic in a description of an injury. But I’m the biggest wuss in the world, and I was able to take it.

      And yes, the narrator is that good. Go for the audio.

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