Sunday, June 1, 2008

"Black Flies"

Shannon Burke is the author of Safelight and has been involved in various films, including work on the screenplays for the films Syriana and the upcoming film Blink. He has also worked as a paramedic in Harlem.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his latest novel, Black Flies, and reported the following:
When Marshal wrote me from the website I immediately grabbed a copy of my book and checked page 69 and was disappointed to find that it fell on what I considered to be a dull moment in the book. I’ll explain why.

Black Flies, my second novel, follows a group of paramedics in Harlem over the period of about a year. Pretty early on the reader sees that the characters are deteriorating in interesting ways and can guess that something bad is going to happen to them. It’s a short book with a jagged feel and concentrated scenes with a moral undertone. It’s almost entirely action, except a section starting a little before page 69 and going a little past it.

The scene that ends on page 69 is a theme related scene where the characters reflect on a question: “Can you be a good medic without caring if your patients live?” They all comment, but the last remark come from a withdrawn, burnt-out old timer named Rutkovsky who says, “Someone who really didn’t care wouldn’t talk about it so much.” That ends the scene. The next scene begins in the middle of page 69.

An arching stone stoop with the spackle-filled screw holes on top where the brass railing had been, a doorway propped open with a pizza box, and a nice-looking lobby with a marble floor and the fixtures overhead for a missing chandelier. Grouped old ladies sat behind a foldout desk in the lobby watching whoever went in and out of the building. As we walked in the crowd of jabbering, squawking community do-gooders were all waving and talking at once: “He just got a little thump…He don’t want no doctor…I told em not to call. I said it! He just walked away! He ain’t here!”

I raised my radio to cancel the job, but Rutkovsky motioned for me to hold off and started for the stairway. “He ain’t here. I told you,” one of the old ladies called out and Rutkovsky just nodded and kept going up the stairs, murmuring , “Gotta check the roof.”

The two of us started up the dim, marble-topped stairs, past the first, the second, and the third floor. I had no idea where we were going. As Rutkovsky turned at the last landing, he said, “I lived here. 1979. Nice view on top. Come on.”

On the roof Rutkovsky surveys the old neighborhood and softens. You can imagine him as a younger man. And that’s pretty much the extent of the scene. There’s no trauma, no fights or violence. Just Rutkovsky pointing out landmarks with the antennae of his radio and remembering the neighborhood as it had been fifteen years before. The scene that follows is a Memorial Day potluck at the station. So, there are three reflective scenes in a row, and that really worried me. Ideally, I think character progression comes organically within vibrant, action scenes. These three scenes, all in a row, felt like a lull to me. I tried reordering the scenes but this was the only logical progression. I tried taking the roof scene out but I missed this glimpse into Rutkovsky’s past. In the end, I left it as is, but with some uneasiness.

So, readers, you can tell me if you paused at this section, if it struck you as a lull, or if you enjoyed the time to relax and take a breath before the plot moved on.

Now, looking over this section, at least for the moment, I am glad I left it as it is.
Read an excerpt from Black Flies, and learn more about the author and his work at Shannon Burke's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue