A killer medical business farce

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By Pat Wellington

If laughter is the best medicine, Beat the Reaper is a wonder drug. Although it’s preposterous, violent, full of weirdoes, gory details, and vulgar language, it’s black humor at its best. But don’t read it if you have a date with a hospital. At New York City’s worst hospital, fictional Manhattan Catholic, few lives are saved unless you count stopping an inept nurse from administering the wrong drug.

Protagonist Peter Brown is an overworked intern in the witness protection program. When he was Pietro Brnwa, his guardian grandparents were murdered by thugs. Through a friend his age Pietro then attached himself to a Mafia family named Locano.

He later became a hit man to please his adopted father, but when the family betrayed him, he ratted them out. Having killed so many, his penance was to become a doctor and start saving lives.

At Manhattan Catholic, the slitty-eyed narrator takes in everything from the daily violations of hospital protocols to a familiar looking patient who’s dying of stomach cancer. The patient is a mobster from Peter’s old life and he recognizes the killer-turned-doctor.

So he makes him an offer he can’t refuse – save his life and he won’t tell the mob where to find him. It’s a tall order because the surgeon scheduled to operate on the mobster is Dr. Friendly, also known as Dr. Death.

The novel alternates between past and present, giving us a full picture of Pietro before his conscience bothered him. We learn he first turned killer to avenge his murdered grandparents who had survived Auschwitz only to be gunned down by punks from New Jersey.

Of revenge the narrator says, “Let me tell you about revenge, particularly murderous revenge. It’s a bad idea. For one thing it doesn’t last. The reason they tell you revenge is best served cold is not so you’ll take your time to get it right, but so you’ll spend longer on the fun part, which is the planning and expectation.”

Readers may have to suspend disbelief at Peter’s improbable escapes – first from a fight over a tiger shark tank on Coney Island, then from a locked medical freezer.

And Bazell’s footnotes are distracting at first but ultimately edifying. For instance, a footnote tells us how hospitals can charge an exorbitant $35 for a bottle of water. The secret? They put dextrose in it to jack up the price.

Finally, you may never feel the same about hospitals again. Those crisp blue OR togs have been in a fast food restaurant at least once, Peter tells us. And the nurse who scratches under his armpit is doing it with “the needlelike camera of a laparoscope that will later be inserted into someone’s abdomen by doctors wearing moon suits to prevent contamination.”

Josh Bazell, who has a writing degree from Brown University and a medical degree from Columbia University, follows the grand tradition of doctors turned writers like Anton Chekov and others.

Pat Wellington is a retired English professor, freelance writer, and faculty member of On Top of the World’s Master the Possibilities, who shares her passion for books with others.