Black Flies

When I was in Portland, Oregon, I lived in a hippie house, and a lot of times I would find my mail buried in piles, with a postmark that was several months old. (Hippies are great but not very dependable when it comes to the mundane details of life.) To remedy this problem, I got myself a post office box in downtown Portland, and I would make almost daily visits to the post office. Often on the tables bearing labels and other post office accessories, people would leave mail that they didn’t want from their boxes.


One day I found two medical journals that a doctor had discarded, and I took them home with me. What gold! I would page through these magazines looking at strange rashes, the third stage of syphilis, necrotic flesh from a brown recluse spider bite and scare myself silly with the awful, terrible diseases out there. I still have those magazines. That’s what Black Flies reminds me of–those medical magazines.

The novel is from the viewpoint of a young medic who has just started working in Harlem and must go through the initiation rites that anybody must endure in a new workplace. Of course, when your workplace is an ambulance and emergency room, these initiation rites become quite macabre. The author Shannon Burke goes into excruciating detail about the bad things that are out there–that can happen to a body–and I love it. The descriptions of what happens to a corpse in the dead heat of summer after five days and what a gunshot to the brain looks like–they satisfy the horror junkie in me. I like knowing what color intestines are and things of that nature.

The fictional narrative is broken up with quoted text from medical manuals and that is just as fascinating to me as the story. When I was a kid, I loved going through the family medical encyclopedia and seeing all the diseases that are out there. I should see if I can get a subscription to one of these medical magazines–surely I don’t have to be a doctor to get something like that. I think I could get a lot of good ideas from the pictures and stuff because I sure don’t understand a word of the medical jargon.

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