In Josh Bazell's 2009 debut novel, "Beat the Reaper," Pietro Brnwa was an ex-hitman forced to dispatch old Mob demons while creating a new, respectable life for himself as Dr. Peter Brown. *
Problem was, his former friends and colleagues just couldn't let the past die until he did.
"Beat the Reaper" was a sick, funny thrill ride, and in Dr. Bazell's sequel, "Wild Thing," it's no less so, as this time "Bearclaw" Brnwa sports yet another alias, Lionel Azimuth. **
From the outset it's clear that Dr. Bazell, who holds a degree in literature from Brown and medicine from Columbia, has a fondness for footnotes. It's a device that doesn't always work, and in fact borders on wearying.***
Reagan Arthur Books ($25.99).
In "Wild Thing," Pietro is toiling as a doctor on a cruise ship when an eccentric billionaire hires him to accompany a sexy **** paleontologist on a strange mission into the wilds of Minnesota lake country.
So, high-powered tourists from the worlds of finance, entertainment and politics start tracking down an elusive creature that might be an All-American version of the Loch Ness Monster.
This is where the story runs off the rails. A lake monster? Seriously?
Sadly, almost all of the characters in "Wild Thing," from the drug-dealing locals to a singing star to an Asian tech tycoon and even Violet, the paleontologist, just aren't as fascinating as the motley Mob crew in "Beat the Reaper."
There is one exception: a real-life character who will serve as a referee on this camping trip to authenticate an urban legend. To reveal the ref's name would spoil one of the book's truly great surprises.
Dr. Bazell can turn a pulp-fictionish phrase with the best of them, and our protagonist's observations dust pop-culture references over truly interesting factoids. They skip lightly across a wide range of subjects, from the effects of LSD on the human body to "the singular of 'biceps' is 'biceps,' " to catastrophic paleontology.
Upon meeting some of his fellow explorers, Bearclaw notes:
"Grody has to be around 24 now. He's a singer/dancer thing who came out of a boy band. Pop songs you hear in a cab en route to some ex-pat bar and think are sung by an actual middle-aged black man. Women on cruise ships always have him on their [mp3] mixes.
"In person Grody's tiny, bug-eyed, smiling and twitchy, but at least he's got a pair of actual black men with him. They're enormous. When they first see the Teng brothers' bodyguards, there's a four-way sunglass stare-off that makes you hope for some Super Streetfighter IV action later on."
Even the neverending footnotes can be pretty amusing, as in, "Personally, I don't think technology's all that bad. If digital devices really do make children less likely to develop the skills and focus to, say, design more digital devices, how is that not a self-limiting problem?"
So what's not to love? Fans of "Beat the Reaper" know there is a joy to following Pietro as he goes all medieval on the Mob, and that doesn't happen until well into the book. Then there's a lack of a worthy opponent: meth-heads and hypocrite politicians just don't measure up, compared with tried-and-true nasty guys in "Beat the Reaper."
The ending of "Wild Thing" -- if you ignore an amusing but overly long appendix -- promises a third book. This time, let's hope everyone steers clear of the woods.
* Who knew the federal Witness Protection Program covered med school?
** There is no doubt an anagram in there somewhere.
*** As well as annoying.
**** Of course, she's sexy. And, this is the last footnote. Promise.
Maria Sciullo : firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1478 First Published February 12, 2012 5:00 AM