Shannon Burke

"Black Flies"

(Reviewed by Chris "C.T." Terry JAN 29, 2009)

Black Flies by Shannon Burke

It’s the early 1990s and Ollie Cross is a young man whose medical school applications have been rejected. He has moved to New York City, where his upwardly mobile girlfriend Clara will be attending med school. Cross takes on a job as a paramedic in crime-ravaged Harlem, hoping to get some field experience and bide his time before retaking the MCAT.

As the new guy on the job, Cross looks up to his most macho coworkers, and instead of following a reserved EMT’s advice to remove himself from the chest-thumping at the station house, he begins working to prove that he isn’t just a wimpy, suburban “Doogie Howser” on his way back to college. As Cross wins the approval of the workplace psychos by doing things like volunteering to enter a home to confirm that it contains a fly-covered, rotting corpse, the true conflict emerges—the discrepancy between the hard life that he lives on the job, and the cushier world of the medical student. It’s no surprise when Cross’s personal life goes down the tubes as he grows estranged from Clara and any semblance of a life beyond the one that he lives in an ambulance in Harlem.

The storyline is minimal and propelled by stark prose. There are no proper chapters, just sections, each beginning with a shocking, often gory story about a noteworthy call on the job, and the strange reactions that it draws from the EMTs left to sort out the aftermath. The veterans of the job, long desensitized to the grizzly problems of their fellow humans, react in surprising ways -- not being fazed by the blood and sometimes even getting in near-violent confrontations with the civilians at the scene.

The excitement and shock of the episodes on the job makes the long-term plotlines feel predictable. Girlfriend Clara is a one-note scold who never approves of Cross’s job. From an early scene where Cross bemoans her perfectionism, you can already guess the future of their relationship and use that to gauge the arc of his character.

It’s strange that Clara, who is so unlikable, symbolizes the lucrative life that Cross sacrifices for his paramedic job. Then you wonder if you like Cross. You don’t really. Readers don’t get to know Cross’s good qualities; we just hear Clara, post-breakup, saying that he’s not using them, and that they’re being beaten down.

So why did I devour this book in seventy-five page chunks? Because while Black Flies strives to ruminate on the effects of urban decay on the people on its front lines, it comes off instead as good noir, with a thrill in the action. Black Flies excites the voyeur where it doesn’t mean to—as a shocking portrait of city grit that would appeal to fans of current police thrillers by Richard Price and George Pelecanos.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 22 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Black Flies at author's website

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About the Author:

Shannon BurkeShannon Burke was born in Wilmette, Illinois and went to college at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Besides publishing novels, he has been involved in various films, including work on the screenplay for the film Syriana.

From the mid to late nineties he worked as a paramedic in Harlem for the New York City Fire Department.

He now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee with his wife Amy Billone and their two sons. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014