Monday, July 21, 2008

Black Flies by Shannon Burke

In Black Flies, Shannon Burke, a former paramedic in Harlem, one of New York City's roughest neighborhoods, provides an honest portrait of a fledgling Harlem paramedic, Ollie Cross. I read the book in a little more than a day, and it was one of the best books I've read in quite some time. However, if you have a weak stomach when it comes to vivid descriptions of gunshot wounds, decaying bodies, and other gruesome things a paramedic might encounter in a crime-ridden neighborhood, you'll probably want to skip this one. But that's your loss.

The book takes place in Harlem in the 1990s and follows Cross as he starts out as a paramedic, choosing the field because he didn't get accepted into medical school. It takes awhile for Cross to fit in, but he eventually develops a relationship with his partner, Rutkovsky, and the other guys in the station. Burke shows how these men develop eccentricities, fall into depression, act out in anger, or close themselves off to their families to cope with all the death they see on a daily basis and their inability to help every patient.

How Cross and Rutkovsky handle a situation with a baby born to a crack addict doesn't unfold until page 113, but it's what Burke was working up to all along. He's successful in developing his characters, showing various sides to each of them and chronicling Cross' evolution. The situation with the baby isn't pretty, but it's not supposed to be. Burke's writing is gritty and raw and real, and I'm glad Burke writes from experience. It adds authenticity to the narrative, it gets you thinking about how much a person can take, and it gives you a new respect for paramedics. You see the weight on the shoulders of these men and women who in many instances have control over life and death. It makes you wonder why they get paid peanuts while some people make millions for throwing a ball.

In the post-9/11 world, first responders have been labeled heroes. Black Flies takes place before 9/11, but it shows that they aren't all heroes, and even those who have done heroic deeds can't fill such big shoes all the time. They aren't perfect, they're human. They don't make the right decisions or say the right things all the time. But they work hard, sometimes in deplorable conditions, and stand eye-to-eye with death on many occasions. You have to expect that it will take a toll.

As Cross says to his girlfriend, Clara, on page 138, "I'm working my ass off. I'm becoming a good medic. And part of being a good medic is having a certain attitude. Of getting people to listen to you and obey in a moment. You can't waste time being polite."

Black Flies also was reviewed by:

Savvy Verse & Wit

Disclosure:  I borrowed Black Flies from the library.


Serena said...

This sounds like a great read!

maniacalmultitasker said...

Hi Anna
You're on Good Reads too!
I've lots to catch up on!

Anna said...

I can't recommend this book enough!

Nice to see ya, Hui!

Sandra said...

Interesting review. I really like stories related to medical things. And a paramedic's life would certainly be challenging since you never know what's going to happen next. I'd love to read this.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great read! I'm intrigued by its Harlem setting and its paramedics characters.

wordlily AT gmail

Anonymous said...

You definitely have me wanting to read this book. I'm a "tell it like it is" kind of writer myself, and I like this guy's style (judging from the interview you posted). And if YOU say it's all that, and written THAT well, well - I just gotta have it.

darbyscloset said...

I enjoyed your review, especially the part about them being paid "peanuts". Seems like so many of our most valued life saving jobs are paid peanuts.....something is not right.
Thanks, I'd like to read.
darbyscloset at yahoo dot com

Shooting Stars Mag said...

Great review. I'd love to read this book because it sounds very real and hard-hitting and it's often difficult to read these type of books, yet I do love it.

It's awful that they get paid so little...I agree. It doesn't really make sense.


lauren51990 at aol dot com

Anna said...

Sandra: I agree that the job must be unpredictable. It's probably never boring!

Wordlily: The setting and characters reminded my of Third Watch. I loved that show and cried when they took it off the air.

Marvin: From reading your blog, I've discovered you tell it like it is. I like that, too. :) I think you'd enjoy the book. Let me know if you get a chance to read it!

Darby: My husband loves to watch sports and I always complain how they are grossly overpaid for what they do. And so are the politicians, but that's another story altogether.

Lauren: Black Flies was difficult to read but so worthwhile. I think the best books are those that aren't necessarily pretty but really make you think.

Anonymous said...

I love to read about subcultures that I don't know much about. I know virtually nothing about EMTs in Harlem, so this intrigues me.

suekamata (at) msn (dot) com

Anna said...

Suzanne: Burke does a great job showing what it's like to be an EMT in Harlem. And that fact that he was one makes the story so much better, in my opinion. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

Wrighty said...

Your review was very impressive. I've always been interested in medical stories and shows. Burke's personal experience as a paramedic must make the story very credible and authentic. Even the gross parts sound interesting! I really look forward to reading this one. Thanks for the offer.

tanabata said...

The fact that he's writing from experience sounds wonderful. As does your comment that it's gritty, raw and real. I like books that come across as completely realistic.
Sounds fascinating!

Joyce Anthony said...

I love reading a book based on experience--and life isn't always pretty :-( This sounds like a fascinating read that would leave the reader viewing things from a slightly different angle than usual--I like that!! Thanks for the review!

Anna said...

Wrighty: Glad you enjoyed the review. Yes, even the gross parts were interesting! ;) Thanks for stopping by my blog!

Tanabata: I don't know anything about being a paramedic, but Black Flies seemed very real to me. And knowing of Burke's experience as an EMT enhanced that feeling.

Joyce: I agree that life's not pretty all the time, and Black Flies really gets you thinking about that. Thanks for stopping by my blog!