Thursday, November 19, 2009


Black Flies
by Shannon Burke
Soft Skull Press, May, 2008
Trade Paper Original, 184 pages, $14.95
ISBN: 9781593761912

Reviewed by Carl Brookins

A powerful debut, smoothly executed, about New York Fire Department paramedics working in Harlem. Paramedics everywhere will doubtless recognize the range of emotional scenes packed into this slender novel. The book’s essence is the constant pressure, in unremittingly unbelievable working conditions.

When the book opens Oliver Cross is a rookie emt. When it ends he’s on his way to a different career. The only mystery here is how he and the other paramedics in the city generally but especially those in Harlem, manage to survive and hold on to their humanity. There is something insidiously wrong in placing human beings into these pressured situations, expecting them to perform near miracles in saving the lives of a range of humans from murderers and addicts to diseased and uncaring predators. And the expectation is that they’ll do it while seriously understaffed, underfunded and inadequately equipped.

This darkly sympathetic novel is both a celebration of the dedication and expertise of the paramedics and an indictment of the system. Against the lethargy and remoteness lf the system, Burke examines the struggles of the men to maintain their sanity and continue to function. Intensely human on one hand, the brutality of their daily existence war constantly with the readers sensiblitites and struggle to accept the reality of the circumstances.

The author’s ear for swift and punchy real dialog is amazing. His integration of story and reality is sometimes amazing. What comes through is a turbulent stressful yet oddly satisfying occupation. Enthralling.

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