Though depicted as a novel, Black Flies is concise enough for a perfect novella. Or, as it expounds upon the experiences of a paramedic in Harlem, it is also appropriate to label the work as a series of vignettes (albeit with a clear storyline). Whatever its categorization, Black Flies is a frightening work that conveys the both the physical and psychological hardship of being a paramedic. Indeed, it’s not just the suffering that medics are trained to alleviate, it is a story that ponders about who responds to the first responders.
The story revolves around Ollie Cross, newly assigned to the 18th precinct. Cross voluntarily selects the 18th to get hardcore paramedic experience while preparing to pass the MCATs he desperately needs for acceptance into medschool. The experience he receives can never be taught from any textbook.
The horror of this story is hammered from two angles. The first, more obvious horror is the death and depravity paramedics experience every single day. Rotting corpses, horrific wounds, constant exposure to disease, and the grotesque, vehement disdain, and dangerous behavior exhibited by the victims they’re supposed to protect.
The other horror is the subsequent disdain, mounting disregard and grotesque behavior that paramedics can subsequently exhibit toward their victims, a gradual hardening to the grittiness and incessant malaise to which they’re exposed. This story is not merely the devolution of Cross, but the way he responds to being partnered with several medics of differing moral zephyrs. There’s the stoic, the maniac, the ultimate altruist; they have seen it all, and all are resigned to the degeneration of the job.
Burke explores the depths to which paramedics, affected by the stress, often decide who lives or dies. He also focuses on the irony of those expertly trained to save life are often already dead from within. Overall, the book details the darker aspects of being a paramedic as well as state of the human condition through a good story. Fascinating read.