Being killed by a mythical sea creature doesn’t sound so bad by comparison with being hunted by multiple hitmen. Josh Bazell’s Wild Thing gives the hitman-in-witness-protection protagonist of his first novel, Beat The Reaper, time to contemplate that choice when it plops him down in urban-legend territory. There, the lull forces him to confront the subtler effects of his decade of paranoia.
Beat The Reaper’s Dr. Peter Brown is now Lionel Azimuth, onboard physician for a cruise-ship company, but a call from an old mentor takes him to the home of the ninth richest man in America. There, he’s given a special assignment: joining a boat tour dedicated to documenting a legendary monster picking people off from deep in White Lake, Minnesota, and figuring out whether it’s all a hoax. Lionel hopes the payout from the gig will let him fund a hit on the man trying to kill him in connection with his old Mafia days, but cagey as he tries to be, the meth dealers and drunken hunters he meets unnerve him almost as much as Violet, the paleontologist he’s supposed to be protecting on the trip. Other problems: Her acerbic wit matches his own, and he has to make sure she doesn’t find out who he used to be.
Bazell dallies in setting up the particulars of Lionel’s new gig, but Lionel’s meeting with the man referred to as “Rec Bill” (for Reclusive Billionaire) sets the tone for his exploration. His side game in this incarnation of his adventures is measuring the extent to which he can set aside his past and present himself as a mildly curious employee instead of the untrusting operative he really is. The monster’s body count doesn’t scare him as much as confiding in Violet does, but the “Aquabigfoot” they’re looking for may fall into the red-herring phylum compared to the more commonplace threats facing them, among them Lionel’s PTSD-level discomfort around other people.
Wild Thing’s plot occasionally suffers from a Mad Libs-style plugging-in of absurdities. The adventure’s out-there nature will drive negative comparisons to Beat The Reaper. But by adopting Lionel’s cagey perspective from the outset—he believes in the monster and the possibility that one of his fellow passengers will try to kill him—the novel steers away from the sensationalist violence of its opening (which features a cinematic foursome of teenagers and the alleged original White Lake “attack”) and seeks refuge in its own world-weariness. Looking like a hero brings Lionel no comfort, since his dim view of humanity leaves him unable to marvel at the twisted byways that brought him there.