Sorrow and the Mob

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell

The story of Pietro Brnwa/Peter Brown, a former mob hitman who became a doctor, Josh Bazell’s debut novel, Beat the Reaper, is lightning-fast, funny, and clever as hell (I had a debate with myself when I started reading about whether or not the book was too clever for its own good, but after 20 or so pages I told myself to shut up and enjoy the ride).

And I did enjoy it. I liked it so much, in fact, that I had to stay up late reading, telling myself, “just one more chapter,” but then that chapter led to the next and to the next, and I guess I should just say it was good that I didn’t have to be anywhere early in the morning.

Told in alternating sections of flashbacks to the protagonist’s past and his present where he tries to work out how he can beat the reaper, the book’s tone, as set by its world-weary narrator, is often cynical, and its humor is pitch-black, which makes the moments of tenderness all the more surprising and effective. I could go on and on, but I don’t see the point of that, so I’ll just give it to you straight: if you’re looking for a relentless good time of a read, and you don’t mind books laced with profanity and violence (including one astoundingly gross page-and-a-half passage that made me talk back to the book, saying “Oh no no no ouch ouch no,” before adding “Well, that is pretty resourceful”), then I recommend you give this book a chance. You may even find yourself rooting for a cold-blooded killer.

The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt

I’m torn about this book. On one hand, it kept me reading all the way to the end, the prose is lovely, and it gave me things to think about as I read, but on the other hand, I never quite connected with the characters. I could never decide if this was my problem or a problem with the book, but for my part, I suppose I could say it was a book that worked on my intellect and never pulled at my heart. It seems odd that this should be the case, as it has all the right elements. The plot isn’t exactly complex, but it’s not quite easy to summarize, either, perhaps because there are several threads to the story. They all work in harmony, woven into a larger theme of fatherhood: the protagonist, a psychiatrist named Erik, reads the manuscript of his father’s memoir after his father dies (in fact, the memoir makes up several sections of the book, and the author’s note states that this memoir is actually her father’s); Erik and his sister Inga find a mysterious letter among their father’s papers and work on figuring out who wrote it and what it meant; Erik rents part of his Brooklyn home to a beautiful graphic designer, Miranda, and her young daughter, Eglantine (with the most unfortunate nickname, Eggy); Inga, recently widowed, deals with the legacy of her literary superstar husband and how it affects her teenage daughter; and there’s a bit with an obnoxious photographer and another bit with a well-meaning medical archivist who happens to sweat a lot. I’m not sure that tells you anything much, but I can’t write more without riddling this paragraph with spoilers.

The book is partly a mystery, and partly about love. It deals with the Norwegian population in Minnesota, which is where Erik and Inga grew up, and it’s about being an outsider, and it’s about inheritances (literal inheritance, yes, but also the more invisible things that parents give their children). As I wrote earlier, it’s about fatherhood, and what it means to connect with a father as both a symbol and a human. And it’s about New York, which is where Erik and Inga live now. Set a couple of years after 9/11, this event looms in the novel, its effects are seen in the characters, and it’s something of a symbol itself: what was there isn’t anymore, and how does one make peace enough to move forward.

So, as I wrote when I began this, I am torn about this book. It certainly had enough going for it to keep me reading to the end, but I always felt detached. When I read the final page, I thought “Yep, okay,” and then I was done, feeling none of that sense of loss that comes with finishing a beloved book. The thing is, I feel like I should feel more about it, because there was certainly plenty within it that in most cases would arouse something (and then reading all the glowing blurbs made me wonder if there was something I was missing), but I just never quite got to where I felt like I was supposed to be with it. In short, it’s a book that has everything going for it, but I just wasn’t moved to care.

One Response

  1. It’s my understanding that in
    It’s my understanding that in addition to having either an MA or PhD in English, Josh Bazell is also a medical student. How Arthur Conan Doylish.

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