Physician in training Peter Brown isn’t having a good day. Not only does he work at a busy New York City hospital where corruption and medical fuck-ups are the norm, but his past is coming back to bite him, big time. You see, Peter used to be Pietro Brnwa, a hit man for the Mafia, where things went well until a job gone awry, jail time, tit-for-tat revenge, and more sent him into the witness relocation program. All well and good, except that a former Mafia associate has turned up in the hospital as a patient. The associate tells Peter that if his upcoming surgery isn’t a success, word goes out to the Mafia on Peter’s new identity and whereabouts. So now it’s up to Peter to keep his identity a secret, make sure his former associate’s surgery goes well (no mean feat given the incompetence at the hospital), and somehow care for all his other patients when he’s so exhausted he can barely see straight.
Josh Bazell’s debut novel has a lot going for it. Peter is an interesting character, one who originally sought only to avenge his murdered grandparents, but who then became a hit man more as a way of keeping ties with the Locanos, a Mafia family whose son befriended Peter at school and who gave Peter his first feelings of truly belonging. Also fascinating are the day-to-day details of Peter’s work at the hospital (though I’d strongly advise against reading this book before you go in for any medical procedure, no matter how minor). While I don’t know how realistic this book’s portrayal of hospital work is, there are enough compelling details to give it a fine flavor of verisimilitude.
Bazell’s narration as Peter is also compelling, although perhaps too heavily indebted to Chuck Palahniuk. (Thankfully, while the book does have its icky moments, Bazell eschews Palahniuk’s tendency towards overkill on the gross-outs. Yes, I’m still trying to forget that I read “Guts”, why do you ask?) Still, it’s a compelling voice, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the book’s plot falls apart toward last quarter, culminating in an ending that’s far too rushed and plot reveals that don’t have the punch that they should. Fortunately, the first three-quarters of the book are engaging and often tense as Bazell draws out the suspense not just of Peter’s present situation but in his account of a raid on a prostitution ranch that goes horribly wrong.
If Bazell can maintain the strength of his narrative voice while making it his own (and sounding less like Palahniuk), and combine that with a stronger focus on plot, he’ll be a writer worth looking out for, particularly if you’re looking for fiction that’s got a nice satiric edge to it.