Friday, May 18, 2012

Josh Bazell Takes Out A Wild Thing

When protagonist Dr. Peter Brown (AKA Pietro Brwna AKA Bearclaw) first appeared in Beat The Reaper, my immediate thought was Josh Bazell had invented a character who could deliver a formidable ride regardless of the circumstances. Brwna is as well made as he is big, and Bazell created an entertaining an unapologetic voice for him. 

Some things don't change in Wild Thing: A Novel. Some things do. It won't take too long for anyone reading it to feel some mild disappointment as they realize the author actually is hellbent on proving Brwna can survive any story. Sadly, almost half of Bazell's readers said he didn't. And I don't mean fictionally.   

The novel is one part good and one part distraction; not nearly as good as the debut. 

The good is good. About ten years later, Brwna has adopted a new alias to hide from the mob that wants him dead. His new name is Lionel Azimuth and he is working as a doctor aboard a cruise ship. The idea of Azimuth getting caught up in an off-continent caper seemed promising. 

But it doesn't take long before he jumps ship, right after he receives a "Tel-E-Gram" from an old friend. Professor Marmoset, the man who helped him get into the Federal Witness Protection Program, needs a favor. One of the wealthiest men in America wants to hire Azimuth to join an expedition to a back woods lake near Ford, Minnesota. There might be a lake monster up there. And it's killing people.

True to form, Azimuth calls bull and says he isn't interested. He is interested, however, in a random figure he made up to discourage his employer--$85,000 plus expenses up to that amount.

It doesn't work. The disbelieving Azimuth is hired on the spot. It's a canoe trip.

Accompanying Azimuth on the expedition is a mental mirror image of him. Violet Hurst doesn't have the brawn, but she carries the attitude. She's as smart as Azimuth is practical, and has lust for hard talk and liquor. It doesn't hurt that she uses sex appeal to her advantage too. 

The two of them make an interesting pair, even if Bazell introduces the girl with a rant about global warming and planetary extinction that ultimately has little to do with the story and everything to do with author infusion. It's more fun to focus on their rough and tumble tug-of-war flirtations than that.

Along with them is an interesting assortment of characters from the sublime to sullen, some who even brought bodyguards. As cardboard are most of them are in comparison to Azimuth or Hurst, there is one more in the party who takes the cake and jumps the shark. Cliches intentional. 

Where the novel sometimes takes a turn for the wrong kind of absurd. 

The bad is bad. The story itself plays out like an adult Scooby-Doo skit. Instead of the four teens and a talking dog, it's Azimuth and Hurst. They are the duo who are to supposed to find a real monster or unmask the hoax, but their relationship is always on the surface (unlike those other meddling kids).

If that storyline sounds thin, Bazell does jump some sharks. Just before Azimuth and Hurst are sidetracked by Midwest meth makers (an occupation of last resort in the dozens of dying small towns), they exchange opinions about Scooby-Doo. Hurst does most of the talking. She knows it all. 

There is a surprising amount of talking in fact. Too much of it is packed with political commentary, painstakingly sourced at the end of the book. Most of it only accomplishes one thing — it slows down the adrenaline-fueled read that was worth relishing in the first place. And the kicker almost derails it all. 

Sarah Palin joins the party, but for no real purpose other than to give Bazell the opportunity to punk on Christians and Republicans. I might be more forgiving on this point if after all the flogging he just flat out said "Yeah, I wrote that. So what?" But at the end of the book, Bazell rides the fence saying he made up his depiction of Palin while providing source material to prove he didn't. Wimpish.

My advice, which is the only way to save the story, is to forgive the bravado and go along for the ride. When the ego is taken out of the equation, Wild Thing is served straight up, sexually tense, socially honest, and cleverly twisted. It doesn't even matter if you agree with Azimuth or not. He is an immensely enjoyable dark and funny character to follow. Case in point: My favorite quotable... 

I rarely do drugs anymore, because as I've grown older I've become able to achieve the same states of emotional instability and poor decision-making skills without them...

Wild Thing By Josh Bazell Sinks A 2.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The novel is worth it, but anyone coming in without the benefit of reading the definitely better novel, Beat The Reaper, will be disappointed. Even then, there is still a chance the follow-up won't satisfy the craving that the first one furnished. Think of it as a sequel that reads more like an afterword, with the storyteller ten years older and a little more plodding as a result. I was glad to read it, but some might not be.

Wild Thing: A Novel by Josh Bazell is available on Amazon. The book is also at Barnes & Noble or can be downloaded from iBooks. The audiobook on iTunes features Robert Petkoff as the narrator. He was the narrator for the first novel too. While I didn't think he had the right voice for the oversized character, people who listened to the first one will probably appreciate his return (even if his voice didn't age).
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