"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."
Ollie Cross has failed to get into medical school. While he thinks about what he plans to do, he takes a job as a paramedic on the tough streets of Harlem, New York City, and finds his whole perspective on life and death beginning to shift.
One of the first lessons for him is the importance of teamwork, and of building up a good working relationship with his colleagues, and particularly his partner on the shift. At first Rutkovsky just seems hardened, cynical and uncaring, but Ollie gradually gains an insight into what makes him tick and develops a sort of friendship with the older man.
The lifestyle of a Harlem paramedic as shown here is not a great one for maintaining relationships outside work - Ollie's girlfriend Clara, studying medicine as he wanted to, soon moves on, and Rutkovsky is splitting up with his 4th wife.
I found this novel an interesting if rather depressing read, with its stories of life in 1990s Harlem, which is portrayed as rife with poverty, drugs and hopelessness. As a paramedic, Ollie and his colleagues tend to see rather too much of the downside of the area.
In some ways Black Flies was a bit disappointing. A lot of time is spent showing the growth of friendship, and the fact that under his hard, cynical exterior, Rutkovsky does care about Ollie - he lectures him on the need to get into medical school and take that opportunity to get out of paramedic work. There is a lack of emotional warmth in the characters, though, and although he is trying Burke never makes any of them feel entirely three dimensional, not even Ollie. I was shocked and saddened by some of the later developments in the story, but not as much as I would have been with a better depth of characterisation.
Interspersed through the story there are paragraphs about newborn babies, and some of the problems and issues that can occur - this is intended to provide background for later plot development, but it interrupted the flow of the story.
There is a strong and important message at the core of this novel, but the storytelling and characterisation weaknesses reduce its impact.
However, I liked this enough, and was interested in the subject matter, to look out for Shannon Burke's previous novel, or anything subsequent he may write.
This review previously appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk
Format: Paperback 185 pages
Publisher: Vintage August 2010 (trade paperback 2009)
ISBN: 978 099 53549 2
RRP: £7.99; Amazon selling price in October 2010 £7.19