By Shannon Burke
Soft Skull Press, 2008
|Midway through Shannon Burke’s first novel Safelight, narrator Frank Verbeckas – a twenty-something rookie paramedic in Harlem who takes his camera along on calls – shows his medic buddies Hock and Burnett some photographs he has recently developed in the half of his apartment he uses as a darkroom:
Burke’s narrative style mirrors Frank’s account of his own artistic work: clean, unadorned prose laid out in snapshot-like vignettes. Neither Burke nor his protagonist lingers overlong on the details of the horrific world to which Frank’s job daily exposes him, and for that, descriptions like “a man with a mouthful of maggots” feel all the more jarring in their spareness. When Frank’s detached older brother Norman, a surgeon at the adjoining hospital, wanders by the group gathered around the Buick, he offers a pronouncement of particular relevance to the risks inherent in working with such subject matter as Burke does in both Safelight and in his excellent newest effort Black Flies:
“Look what your brother did,” Burnett said, motioning to the photographs.
“Go ahead,” Hock said. “Take a look. That’s the real deal.”
I wanted Norman to take the shot of the policeman, but Burnett held the close-up of the head covered in maggots. Norman took the print, studied it.
“Whattaya think?” Burnett asked.
“I think it’s one-note,” he said. “I think Frank’s got talent, but his pictures are all gratuitous. Purposefully ugly. One-note. I think he could do better.”
The question confronting the reader of Burke’s work is whether the successions of images of pain and suffering are gratuitous, purposefully ugly, one-note. Both Safelight and Black Flies unfold across the bleak landscape of early-nineties Harlem, and while each novel contains moments of beauty, the decaying humanity the medics encounter is unrelentingly grim.
As a photographer, Frank has a built-in distancing mechanism: he rarely engages directly with the scenes of suffering before him, opting instead to consider framing, angle, light, and composition. Despite the fact that the emotional impact of a given scene eventually might tug him into despair while he looks alone at the photographic version of it he has created, Frank remains more concerned with garnering the approval of Hock (his “most discerning critic”) and of Norman. The sense of artistic representation and the desire for local acclaim insulate Frank to the extent that his experiences as a medic feel underplayed, quiet, footnotes to an unmoored early-adulthood ennui.
For Ollie Cross, the protagonist of Black Flies, there is no such insulation. Ollie has been stripped of Frank’s extracurriculars – activities, relationships, even preexisting psychological baggage – and thrust into a station where even the best, kindest medics are in danger of “snapping.” Without the distancing and distraction, Black Flies comes across as weightier for being more bare, more harrowing for having almost no light to throw into contrast the unremitting dark. The book’s introduction makes it clear that this is to be a story less of good versus evil than of evil, straight and simple:
It’s hard to explain this transition to someone who has not lived through it, but when you can’t sleep and your life feels completely empty and you see death so much that it’s commonplace and you’re filled with the secret guilt of being alive among the dead, then you can become the sort of individual who is blunted and immune to the normal sensations of the everyday world, the kind who can stumble across the contorted body of some mangled teenager or the half-rotting corpse of an old lady with maggots crawling beneath her white dress and just stand there looking and not see anything but a piece of meat, not feel anything except the irritation that you’re the one who has to deal with it. That’s protection – being numb – but it carries with it a risk particular to the job. When everything is meaningless, including the life or death of the people around you, then the door is left open to be evil, really fucking evil.
The “transition” at heart for Ollie – and, I would wager, for even the cynical reader – is from a state of guarded optimism to a dangerous, casual numbness; despite what Ollie believes, however, that numbness is in no way a protection. What it manages instead is to pull into sharp focus the Sisyphean task of caring for a sliver of humanity seemingly ever-bent on destroying itself (with, of course, help from a bad economy, poor government, and non-existent race relations).
But is it gratuitous? Is it one-note? Is it violence for its own sake? Because it’s impossible to ignore the decay, the corpses, the limbs bent at wrong angles or the hacked-off appendages. This is a novel animated by nameless, faceless malicious destruction – above all, destruction with no purpose and no goal other than its own perpetuation. Burke scatters helter-skelter Ollie’s (and subsequently the reader’s) initial assumptions about the fundamental goodness and meaningfulness of his work and the world around him and replaces these assumptions with the certain knowledge that there exists a menace, and even those with the best intentions and the most hope for humanity are not immune to it.
To answer my questions, however: Black Flies is sobering, wrenching, sad. But gratuitous it is not. Yet morally problematic is the line between, as one character puts it, altruism, “the right thing,” and “evil, really fucking evil,” – so problematic that, as a reader, you find you’ve stepped over what you thought was the line only to find altruism and evil there together, nestling like old lovers.
Ollie – the Ollie of the beginning of the book, when he hasn’t yet broached his transitional period – has come to New York because he failed to get into medical school the first time around. His (soon to be ex) girlfriend Clara has gotten into medical school, so she watches as he settles into Harlem’s Station 18, “the station,” as Ollie puts it, “for fuckups and green rookies.” His initial desire is to “do good,” to help people and save lives, and in fact the snatching of life from the maw of death bookends the story. Ollie and his partner Rutkovsky nearly lose an asthmatic patient due to Ollie’s hesitancy in intubating, a mistake the older medic must intervene to correct at the last moment. The end of the book gives Ollie his first “save,” as he resuscitates a young girl who has been electrocuted. In the first instance Ollie is drawn into the Station 18 crew, while in the second he has seen and understood enough to move away from them, because their definition of goodness warped and then hardened by their work in the field, becomes Ollie’s definition of evil.
The Station 18 crew is not immediately welcoming to outsiders, and the grotesque hazing process endured by rookies (one unfortunate medic receives the “Harlem blackball,” “a maggot-covered dead dog propped up in his driver’s seat) portends the horrors they’ll shortly encounter on the job, an unrelenting series of grisly interactions that take a heavy toll on Ollie and the reader alike.
In one such interaction nearly a third of the way through the book, for instance, Ollie and Rutkovsky eat dinner with Pastori, a cop who takes undue offense at a kid across the street who spits in their general direction. Pastori calls over the kid and the kid’s boss, then demands the boss correct the act of “disrespect” – which leads to the boss brutally beating the kid. Rutkovsky and Ollie keep a distance, but eventually
Rutkovsky jumped up and held [the boss] back, pulling him away, almost throwing him to the ground. Pastori laughed and uncrossed his arms.
“All right, all right. Lucky you.” Then, with a sort of annoyance, “Guess Rut’s feeling generous today.”
I’d been sitting there and watching the whole thing. Rutkovsky turned on Pastori, who smiled, but stepped back. For a moment I thought Rutkovsky would go at Pastori, but he didn’t, and Pastori saw he wouldn’t. In a cool, offhand way Pastori motioned to the kid on the ground.
“Look’t that. Fucking knocked him out. You don’t even have to hurry, Rut. He ain’t goin nowhere. Finish your dinner.”
Rutkovsky radios in the job and they rush the kid to the hospital, where Rutkovsky tells Ollie, “I know you’re some bleeding heart, Cross, probably think you’re going to write up a complaint. Forget it. That kid was no angel. And nothin’ you could’ve done. I been out here a long time. I can step up. You can’t. If you tried, they’d’ve made it worse cause you wanted to stop em…” What makes this exchange odd, Ollie reflects, is that Rutkovsky
seemed to be trying too hard to convince me that I couldn’t have done anything, trying to give me an excuse for not stepping up, and maybe, making an excuse to himself for me. The truth is, I think he was surprised I hadn’t tried to stop Pastori. I’d only been on the streets for three months at that point. I think he was surprised that he’d had to do it himself.
The initial assumption here, on the part of both Rutkovsky and the reader, is that the spectrum exists with “evil” at one end (Pastori) and “good” at the other (Ollie), and that Rutkovsky’s morals lie close to Pastori’s. But everyone soon becomes confounded in the effort to clearly define the two. Ollie may have been right to do nothing to stop the boy’s beating (he is a paramedic, not a policeman, after all) or his passivity may be an early sign of his ethical deterioration.
The same haunting question is raised in a later scene in which Rutkovsky and Ollie treat an “unconscious woman, impossibly wrinkled and withered, her skin browned like beef jerky, a grating sound with each breath,” who is so near death (from fluid in her lungs) that Rutkovsky is tempted to let her slide to it:
I looked at Rutkovsky. He looked back at me. He crossed his arms. He waited for me to do something. To yell at him or to raise the woman’s head. I didn’t. I guess I thought I wouldn’t have drowned her myself, but she was a hundred and one years old. She lived a miserable life in that nursing home. What did it matter if she died or not? I would have treated, but Rutkovsky was my senior partner. I wouldn’t go against him.
An easy way to absolve oneself of guilt – “But I was only following orders” – but again, Rutkovsky’s silent challenge to Ollie only flirts with the line between the twisted sense of altruism and the crueler but ultimately more humane action of “treating.” A nurse’s entrance causes Rutkovsky to carefully backpedal, so that, for the moment, the old woman lives; yet we can’t be entirely certain whether Rutkovsky wouldn’t have “stepped up” at the last opportunity and help the woman as he had the beaten kid.
Rutkovsky, Ollie’s dubious yet appealing mentor, is one of Burke’s great creations in Black Flies. It would have been easy to give him a rough exterior with a soft (even golden) heart. Instead Burke presents us with the most psychologically complex and problematic – hence the most real – of the characters in the story. Rutkovsky possesses traits that might either have damned or redeemed him in a different setting, but ultimately he never resolves as someone who is overtly good (like Verdis, a medic who spends his spare time tending a garden outside the station and is unfailingly kind and patient) or evil (like LaFontaine, another medic whose twisted definition of altruism eventually forces Ollie away from the station). And so he best embodies the recurring question in the novel: what is good, and what is evil?
It is a question that Ollie, for his part, is forced to grapple with while subsumed in the claustrophobic nightmare of his work. “I think we lost track of what was considered to be normal,” he notes about half-way through Black Flies. His sober list of experiences gathers heft and makes us agree with him: “our entire waking lives became a relentless round of stabbings, shootings, heart attacks, asthmatics, schizophrenics, bloated corpses, anything the city could offer up.” While these things might traumatize at first sight, with repetition (and without further embellishment), they take on the waxen luster of the everyday, things as familiar as the computers, staplers, and printers of the office worker. Of course, death and suffering are (fortunately) not commonplace for most people. Ollie likens the work of Station 18 to that of medics in a war: “We were some combination of soldiers and first-aid responders.” Rutkovsky becomes a brother-in-arms to Ollie, taking the younger medic to meet his daughter (by his fourth, and now ex-, wife), to the top of his former apartment building to see war-torn north Harlem (“You have no idea, Cross,” Rutkovksy says, “It used to be a nice place”), to philosophize on Far Rockaway beach. They grow closer simply because they have no one else to understand them. They are players in an ongoing war. No comparison could be more apt – but again, it is a glancing metaphor, taken up then tossed aside. No overt themes or messages here. Just, one feels, real, lived life, in all its horrific splendor.
The novel’s readability nearly tricks its reader into becoming similarly shell-shocked, then jaded. What makes the structure of Black Flies compelling is that it manages to escape feeling episodic while comprising small blocks of text, none longer than two pages. Burke has interspersed with the plot excerpts from a famous speech the Station 18 chief gives to the medic graduates every year, and extracts from a medical textbook about caring for a woman who is in labor. While the textbook sections appear arbitrary at first, over the course of the novel they take on weight, particularly at the novel’s apex, when Ollie and Rutkovsky, out on a job, enter a room to find a woman who had given birth cutting her umbilical cord with a broken crack pipe. (Ollie and Rutkovsky enter a tiny room “to find a wooden floor slick with thickening blood, and a baby, not moving, curled on its side next to a bloody placenta. The mother was up on one arm trying to cut the twisted umbilical cord with the jagged end of a broken crack pipe.”) The chief’s speeches are the one aspect of the book that seem forced, however; they don’t map precisely what happens in the subsequent sections of plot, though they do hint at things Ollie will re-learn on the field. But Burke does a wondrous job showing his readers the process of burning out, so why repeat Ollie’s experiences with such a pointed telling of the same thing?
But while these insertions feel a little stilted, Burke’s descriptions of the horrors Ollie encounters are superb. In a book about paramedics, you would thus expect some gore. And yet, refreshingly, Burke resists the temptation. Part of what makes Black Flies a stronger, more disturbing but ultimately more rewarding read than Safelight is how wide a berth Burke gives the gruesome, the descriptive, the theatrical in his second novel. Everything nasty the reader sees, Ollie describes bluntly, without weighty elaboration. Take, for example, the juxtaposition of images in a passage early in the book:
The tick tick tick of the kitchen timer, merengue music drifting in from the courtyard, the sound of water running in the bathroom and the tap of Clara’s glass bottles of lotion and makeup on the sink, a ragged piece of bloodstained lace from the nightgown of an old lady beaten to death with barbells, the tiny curled hand of a stick baby found starved to death in his crib with Mom standing over him eating a hot dog in a white-bread bun, saying “Yeah, he been sick a while,” and jumbled numbers and letters and [chemistry] formulas….
Simply, harshly, Burke reveals the contents of Ollie’s mind, how the rookie medic is already finding it impossible to distinguish his work from his life. Ollie is studying for the MCAT; his book is open on the desk in front of him, though the MCAT – and the career behind it – is the last thing on his mind, and this holds true for most of the novel.
And throughout the rest of the novel, Ollie undergoes another, deeper kind of hazing; breaking from reality and from humanity, what the chief’s speeches term “weathering” or “crisis” or “burning out.” This is a slow release of his own grasp on morality, and realizing how tenuous that grasp was in the first place.
I stepped into the bedroom, glanced at the old woman, and something collapsed inside. I didn’t give a fuck about the woman. I didn’t care about anything, and I thought, I’m through being a paramedic. It was pathetic. It had taken Rutkovsky twenty years to get to that point of indifference. It took me eleven months.
But is this really “indifference” or is it something deeper – something inevitable?
As he’s faced with gunshot victims, electrocutions, crack addicts, suicides, Ollie develops a utilitarian ethos without the “greater good” bit; at one point he seems poised to jump into far deeper waters. After an episode in which LaFontaine turns off the IV on a heroin dealer who had been both victim and perpetrator of a shoot-out and Ollie turns the IV back on only so the paramedics waiting at the ER won’t see, LaFontaine explains himself:
The thing about this job, Cross, is no one sees what we do. The inside of the ambulance – that’s our kingdom. That’s where we rule. We can do what we want back there. We can give superior treatment or inferior treatment. And you gotta ask yourself, some skel like that, does he deserve superior treatment?…. It’s not wrong to see it clearly…. Skels like that make this city unlivable. And we’re in a position to do something about it…. I’m the real altruist. A kid like we just had, he’s a negative in this world. You have to ask yourself if you have the strength to do the right thing…. To be one of the guys who make a real difference.
Is it evil to want to impose that kind of judgment on the world? Actually it’s far easier to ask whether it’s altruistic to impose that kind of judgment on the world, because the answer is an obvious no. But after reading Black Flies, after being dragged, along with Ollie, through (as Rabbie Burns would call it) man’s inhumanity to man, the answer to the question isn’t so obvious.
I’m not entirely sure what it meant that I had to go to three large bookstores in Manhattan before I could find one that wasn’t sold out of Black Flies. Likelier than not it simply meant a small press run and a public that had read The New York Times Book Review on Memorial Day weekend, where Liesl Schillinger’s review had the front cover. I rather hope that the book was absent because it’s a compelling and necessary read. Because here we have what Lear called the thing itself, unaccommodated man, unshielded from the burdens of suffering and pain and death. Here there is a work that sees no class, no color, no gender, no religion, only the universal leveler of all humankind – and manages, somehow, to pull itself back up into the light of day.
Lianne Habinek is a Phd candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about literary metaphor and 17th-century neuroscience.