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Black Flies

3.71  ·  Rating Details ·  693 Ratings  ·  130 Reviews
Novelist Shannon Burke earned stunning reviews for his debut book, Safelight, and now he returns with the same minimalist intensity in this arresting follow-up. Black Flies is the story of paramedic Ollie Cross and his first year on the job in mid-'90s New York. It is a ground's eye view of life on the streets: the shoot-outs, the bad cops, unhinged medics, the hopeless pa ...more
Paperback, 184 pages
Published April 28th 2008 by Soft Skull Press
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May 04, 2015 Carol rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
The Hook - The recommendation of a GR friend led me to this book. It is Shannon Burke's second novel. The subject of a rookie paramedic in Harlem piqued my interest.

The Line"I worked in Harlem and the place had begun to annoy me:" this is the beginning of the opening line, the prologue, our prep so to speak. If you want to see, to learn, to understand what annoys Ollie Cross you'll have to read the book.

The Sinker – Now that's what I call different. Not at all what I was expecting. Black Fl
Debbie "DJ"
May 05, 2015 Debbie "DJ" rated it liked it
Very tough read. A first year parametric in Harlem. What goes on in the streets, and how these paramedics are affected is frightening.
Jan 06, 2013 Michelle rated it it was amazing
Shannon Burke puts the grit, gore, neglect, and decay right under the reader's nose in this harrowing novel. I had to close the book abruptly and mentally walk away twice, and physically walk away once, in response to the author's vividly detailed scenes from a day in the shift of paramedics working in Harlem during the mid-1990s. And although I read it nearly five years ago, even today I feel a creep of revulsion when I recollect two of these scenes, neither of which features blood, and one of ...more
Dec 15, 2013 Gea rated it liked it
Shelves: fire-medic, 2014-read
Black Flies is a dark bleak ride-- so different than the lyricism of Burke's debut, Safelight: A Novel. The medics of this Harlem clan are burnt to a critical level. Fortunately, there are a few (very few) bright souls shining amidst the darkness. I became weary of the never-ending stream of carnage and gore, cruelty and callousness, all the while waiting for a plot to emerge. Although, I'm a medic in Miami-Dade, Burke's relentless parade of rotting bodies began to wear at me. I'm glad I carried ...more
Angie McCrae
Dec 31, 2008 Angie McCrae rated it really liked it
For such a short read this book packs a powerful punch. In Black Flies author Shannon Burke, a former paramedic who worked in Harlem, gives an honest and grim portrait of what Harlem paramedics encounter on a daily basis. It is a dark novel filled with disturbing events of death, gunshot victims, drug addicts and other gruesome things paramedics face while working in a crime-filled, poverty-ridden neighborhood. The book follows Ollie Cross during his first year as a medic and chronicles his dail ...more
Kevin and Martha Curtin
Aug 20, 2008 Kevin and Martha Curtin rated it it was amazing
An excellent story. Burke's account is based on his years as a paramedic in harlem. Not for weak stomachs, in fact, do not read until an hour has passed after your last meal. If you ate a hot dog, make it three hours.
Oct 03, 2011 Annet rated it really liked it
Found this book in a bookstore in San Francisco, not the usual book I would read, but somehow I was drawn to it. This is a grim, realistic, minimalistic, direct and very well written book, gives an upclose and confronting view of young paramedic Ollie Cross. Having missed out on medical school, he signs up as paramedic patrolling the streets in New York (Harlem) with a number of colorful characteristic partners, to get experience and try to get into medical school this way. He gets sucked into t ...more
Apr 14, 2008 Kimberly rated it really liked it
I took this book to the laundry mat, which is where I do most of my reading on Sundays. I finished it later that evening.

I loved this book for its honesty and realistic accounts of what a paramedic goes through in Harlem. Their job is so very very important, yet in this book he is never thanked or appreciated by the community. Its hard job to see death and horror on a daily basis, and eventually he sees himself changing.

I dont want to add spoilers to this. I do recommend it as its a good read!
Rosina Lippi
Jan 11, 2010 Rosina Lippi rated it liked it
Burke is a former paramedic, and both his novels (this one and the one preceding it) deal with that world. Black Flies is about a young guy who didn't quite make it into medical school and is floundering, trying to figure out where he belongs in the world. He takes a job as a paramedic in Harlem. This is in 1990s, and things were ... vivid.

I've always been interested in all things medical. I read a lot about this stuff and I watch a lot of documentaries. I can watch surgery without a problem, wh
Jul 30, 2008 Serena rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anna eskridge, Marnie Twigg, marie
Recommended to Serena by: Anna Horner
Black Flies by Shannon Burke is a masterpiece of characterization and plot. Burke, a former paramedic in Harlem, New York, weaves his disjointed plot through a series of in-depth characterizations and vivid event descriptions. He traces the steps rookie Ollie Cross takes as he tries to fit in with the Station 18 crew and still hold onto his dreams of medical school, and along the way he spirals out of control, only to emerge on the other side of a black hole with his first save and a sense of pu ...more
Carl Brookins
Oct 29, 2013 Carl Brookins rated it really liked it

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 tho
Jul 22, 2008 Anna rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Tracey Cramer-Kelly
Nov 02, 2011 Tracey Cramer-Kelly rated it liked it
Shelves: medical-drama
Since I was trained as an Army paramedic in a previous life, I am drawn to novels and characters who are in that line of work (and much of my writing is impacted by that experience).

The book description for Black Flies by Shannon Burke included a reference to “minimalist intensity,” and that’s a good term for it. The character recounts intense scenes, but it’s almost as if he’s a step away from them. Perhaps that was intentional – quite a bit of showing instead of telling here, and with males, t
Larry H
Jul 25, 2011 Larry H rated it it was amazing
I thought this was gritty and fantastic, but in a fairly stripped-down way. Another book that read like it should be a movie, this was the story of Ollie Cross, an NYC paramedic in his rookie year. This book pulls no punches in its descriptions of injuries and maladies affecting the people Ollie and his colleagues treat, and doesn't depict the paramedics only as saviors. This was on both the New York Times' and Amazon's lists of best books of the year, and deservedly so.
Aug 18, 2008 Ben rated it it was amazing
Tight and blunt with a tragic Clockers-like vibe.
Jan 17, 2016 Stephanie rated it it was amazing
Set in Harlem, New York, Black Flies tells the story of a paramedic named Ollie Cross, who is also studying to get into medical school to become a full-time doctor. He and his hard-shelled partner, Rutkovsky, deal with Harlem’s terrible mishaps and screwed up ways of living in their own form of altruism. In the novel, Rutkovsky “misdiagnoses” a baby born from a HIV positive, crack-addicted mother, and Cross backs him up when he gets accused. As a result, Cross and Rutkovsky receive the back of ...more
Dec 01, 2008 Jim rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction
If ever I am faced with a medical emergency that requires paramedics, I believe that my mind will immediately flash to scenes from Burke's interesting novel (though more like a memoir, I think) of life as a rookie paramedic in 1990s drug-infested, poverty ridden, racially charged Harlem. The protagonist, a young midwestern middle-class white guy hoping to get accepted into medical school and eager for hands-on experience while preparing to improve his MCAT scores, gets swept up in learning his c ...more
Aug 21, 2008 Schuyler rated it really liked it
Burke (who worked as a paramedic in Harlem during the early 1990s) documents the life of a rookie paramedic in Harlem during the 1990s. Write what you know, right? He (the main character, Cross) shows up all wide-eyed and hopeful, medical textbook tucked under his arm, thinking he's going to save the world, or at least this neighborhood. It's pretty much a rapid decent into the heart of darkness from the opening pages though, and we watch the horrifying hardening of Cross as the day in and day o ...more
Mary Overton
"When the really hot weather began the average number of medical emergency jobs in the city went from 2,300 a day to around 3,600 and sometimes up above 4,000. North of 125th Street, heat meant irritable, tired, uncomfortable people crammed together on sidewalks, on stoops, and beneath awnings. It meant murders, clashes with police. It meant suicides, domestic disputes, everyone short-tempered, bickering with us, and us with them. It meant that they cancelled our vacations and our weekends and t ...more
Mar 02, 2012 James rated it really liked it
Black Flies, by Shannon Burke, brings the reader into the everyday life of a EMT in the streets of Harlem. Although this is a book of fiction it gives off a feel of being auto-biographical, with all of the vivid imagery in every messed up scenario that the EMT's encounter.
The story is told through the eyes of Oliver Cross who at the beginning of the book is a student who is trying to get into Med school but didn't pass his MCATs. Throughout the book Oliver grows as an EMT both is slowly loosing
Colin N.
Jul 25, 2011 Colin N. rated it really liked it
In "Black Flies" Burke tells the story of Ollie Cross, a young college graduate studying to get into medical school, who becomes a paramedic in Harlem in the early 1990s. Cross joins the motley crew of paramedics, a group of diverse personalities who cope differently with the stress and trauma of having to face a continual parade of horrific injuries and death. Cross struggles with his conscience and his humanity as he decides how he will address these situations. The death of an infant child an ...more
Mikey B.
Apr 26, 2009 Mikey B. rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Mikey B. by: New york times book review
Shelves: fiction
This is a very gritty and grisly book describing the paramedics who work on the ambulances in Harlem in New York City. The job is more than draining – it corrodes the lives of most of these workers. They are faced with rescuing many patients who are at the dead-end of society – drug addicts, homeless people, gang members… Most of the public loathe them. It’s a thankless job.

The book is narrated from the first-person. The job and the people doing it are vividly described. Like most jobs there are
Feb 29, 2012 Darlene rated it really liked it
Black Flies is a very disturbing but highly enlightening book about the life of paramedics in New York City during the 1990s.... Harlem in particular. This story traces medic Ollie Cross from his first day as a rookie to around his one year anniversary. My emotions certainly ran the gamut while reading this book. I had no problem understanding just how medics could become desensitized to the horrors that they often witnessed as part of their day to day routine. I felt immense compassion for the ...more
Jun 22, 2012 OneiroDancer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Benvenuti all'inferno. Il Bronx degli anni Novanta, un posto dimenticato da Dio e dall'America, un angolo di terzo mondo nella capitale mondiale del capitalismo, dove sparatorie, droga, costruzioni fatiscenti e condizioni igieniche inverosimili sono le minacce quotidiane contro le quali si ergono il protagonista e i suoi colleghi, infermieri del pronto intervento.

Il libro �� costruito in maniera magistrale, con un chiaro obiettivo e una perfetta struttura narrativa. Gli elementi splatter sono st
Aug 22, 2008 Daniel rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Everyone with a strong stomach
This is a really interesting look into a world that not many people will get to experience, being on the frontlines of the social disasters that occur within a very depressed portion of a city and being charged with the welfare of the people who live there. It chronicles the changes that occur within a new recruit as he goes through his first year as a Harlem paramedic, the challenges of confronting the daily horrors of people who desperately need help. How the main character deals with a range ...more
Mar 22, 2010 Emily rated it really liked it
This is a really good look into the difficulty of working on the front lines of emergency services. While this is a fictional story, it is incredibly realistic. The characters in this book interact with people of all types - dead, living, injured, faking, mentally ill, angry, grateful, violent, you name it. The narrator, Ollie Cross, is a prospective medical student who didn't get into med school on the first try, so he signs up as a paramedic to get a year of experience under his belt before he ...more
May 02, 2009 Caitlin rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2009
A slim, minimalist little bite of a novel about paramedics in Harlem in the early '90's. The author draws on his own life experience in a book filled with scattershot impressions - much the way you might imagine a day as a paramedic might be.

The characters & the sense of place are clear & drawn with depth despite the relative brevity of the book. These people are real & you care about them & about what happens to them, around them, because of them. This book reminds me a bit of B
Meghan McFadden
Nov 20, 2016 Meghan McFadden rated it it was amazing
I inhaled this book. I picked it up through my swap group without having any knowledge about the story or the author beyond the blurb on the back cover. It is a tough read, a stomach turning, disturbing, discouraging, overwhelming read. But it is so authentic. Anyone who knows about the state of Harlem in the early 90's will immediately realize it is rooted in reality. I don't think this could have been written by someone who wasn't there. Shannon Burke benefits greatly from his experience. But ...more
Dec 21, 2009 James rated it really liked it
Good book. Fun read. I've worked as a paramedic so I can identify with the frustration and apathy that the characters sometimes feel about their patients. This is a dark book, but then being a paramedic can be a dark job.

One of my favorite things in this book is the characterization. All the medics are distinct and feel like real people living and breathing on the page. I saw bits and pieces of past co-workers in them, and that added to the fun of reading the book.

The only thing that bugs me is
Jul 04, 2013 Sheryl rated it liked it
I had this book on my list to read for several years - from a year-end NYT list I think. I liked it, but not sure it was worthy of a multi-year stint on the to-be-read list.

It was about a young man who becomes a paramedic in NYC. It follows him and his colleagues through their daily routines, making life-and-death decisions. What was most unique about this was the way it was written. There were short vignettes depicting different patients and situations, often without a lot of background and wi
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This book is awesome 1 8 Oct 02, 2011 09:59PM  
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Shannon went to college at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He has published three novels, Safelight, Black Flies, and Into the Savage Country, and 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 hi ...more
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