Wild Thing: A Novel by Josh Bazell (Reagan, Arthur Books, $25.99, 400 pages)
Eagerly awaited by fans of Beat the Reaper, Josh Bazell’s caustic, damaged, mob hit man-turned-doctor is back – still running from the mob and marked for death. This time, hiding out as Lionel Azimuth, a physician on a cruise ship, he’s tapped by a reclusive billionaire for a mercenary mission in the wilds of Minnesota.
Wild Thing is funny – loaded with footnotes in which the scientist in Dr. Azimuth documents his sources and explains his assumptions. It’s also profane and raw, and the sexual tension between Azimuth and Violet, the beautiful paleontologist he accompanies on the junket to validate or debunk stories of a man-eating Loch Ness-type beast, is only partially due to his overly obvious attraction to her and to air so thick with pheromones that it crunches. The flame is also fanned by their easy banter, which swings from Greek history to Scooby-Doo.
“How many people have you killed?” she asks, after he finally decides to trust her enough to reveal his past.
“I don’t know. Around twenty.”
“You don’t know?” she asks.
“There were some situations where some of them might have lived.”
Azimuth is a hulking man whose physical size adds a layer of monstrousness that belies the funny, intelligent, sensitive man that he is at heart. But Wild Thing has a tough act to follow. Beat the Reaper, Bazell’s bestselling first novel, put the same protagonist (aka Pietro Brwna/Peter Brown) in the struggle that defines him: the quest to come to grips with the violent events that orphaned him both physically and emotionally. Although the tension between good and evil is still present, the demons Azimuth faces in the sequel are cartoonish and played for laughs.
Post-traumatic stress disorder nightmares? LSD-enhanced monsters? Sarah Palin in a speaking role? Bring on, as Azimuth would say. But the despair that made him so compelling in Beat the Reaper – a brooding, misunderstood, pragmatically lethal Shrek who kills to stay alive – is missing in Wild Thing.
Wild Thing, an entertaining romp through contemporary U.S. politics and evolutionary zoology, is well recommended. But if you haven’t read either of Bazell’s books yet, save Beat the Reaper for last. That’s the one that will leave you wanting more.