I’m not crazy about Josh Bazell’s Wild Thing, but that has nothing to do with the fact that Bazell has a bachelor’s degree in writing from Brown University and a medical degree from Columbia University and I can’t stand show-offs. (Honestly, is there anything more annoying than a physician who writes best-selling novels in his spare time?) In truth, my dislike of Wild Thing (Reagan Arthur Books, $26) has everything to do with how much I genuinely liked Bazell’s first book, Beat the Reaper (2009). Like so many sequels before it, Wild Thing just isn’t as good as its predecessor, and suffers in comparison.
Beat the Reaper introduced readers to Pietro Brnwa, a young physician whose pre-med past included killing people for the Mafia. With the help of the Federal Witness Relocation Program, Pietro became Peter Brown and tried to keep people from the morgue instead of sending them there personally. The novel was fast-paced and funny, and demonstrated Bazell’s penchant for inserting footnotes that not only advanced the story but provided ample opportunity for additional wisecracks.
Predictably, Wild Thing suffers from elevated expectations. Here, Pietro—under the alias “Lionel Azimuth”—is playing doctor on a cruise ship when he’s summoned to Portland, Ore., by a reclusive billionaire (frequently referred to as “Rec Bill”) to check out some wild claims about a lake-dwelling monster in White Lake, Minn., responsible for several deaths. Aiding Azimuth is Dr. Violet Hurst, an attractive paleontologist on the billionaire’s payroll. Fans of sexual tension, take note.
Wild Thing isn’t just about whether or not the White Lake monster is a hoax; it’s about whether or not Pietro can ever have a normal life given his criminal past. Even though his old boss, David Locano, is in custody, Pietro isn’t safe from Mafia hitmen. Traveling to Minnesota not only means spending quality time with Violet; it means earning $85,000 to put toward killing David.
The story that follows features inept drug dealers, corrupt officials, murder, revenge and an opportunity to revisit Pietro’s fear of sharks. Wild Thing has all the action and attitude of Bazell’s debut, but none of the zing. I appreciate Bazell’s efforts to open up the story (much of Beat the Reaper took place in the hospital where Pietro (as Peter) worked, interspersed with detail-laden flashbacks), but too much of Wild Thing feels perfunctory.
Even a surprise guest appearance by Sarah Palin (or rather, a fictionalized caricature of her) falls flat. It’s too early to tell what kind of literary career Bazell will have, but I’m willing to call Wild Thing a noble failure and give him another chance. ★★☆☆☆