Safelight by Shannon Burke

Shannon Burke’s Safelight is an ambitious undertaking that examines the decline of New York City and the decline of a paramedic, Frank Verbeckas. Through sparse and compelling language, dialogue, and plot points, Burke expertly immerses the reader into a series of dramatic scenes in which Verbeckas struggles to find himself amidst crime, disease, and the tragic death of his father.

Verbeckas is a paramedic and photographer, but his gift is capturing the reality that surrounds him, which in his eyes is the illness, death, and disease of the patients in crumbling New York City. His brother, Norman, is a top surgeon at a local hospital, and despite his arrogant manner and self-confidence, Norman struggles to break through his bully-like exterior to help his brother.

On page 138 of Safelight, the description used easily sums up the tumultuous relationship between Norman and Frank:

His eyes went wild. He swung with his right and hit me on the side of the mouth. I stumbled against the sink and he came in towards me. He was about four inches taller and sixty pounds heavier. I jabbed with my left but he twisted, dodged, and had me in his grip. He threw me against the wall. I went at him. He had me in his grip again. He threw me. I went at him, then stopped. We stood there, huffing and puffing in that tiny room.

The short, clipped descriptions of this fight between brothers quickly provides the reader with an inside perspective of how Frank compares himself to his brother and how they relate to one another.

Through a series of disjointed, but related paramedic scenes, the reader gains a sense of Verbeckas’ struggles and his downfall seems almost inevitable. However, meeting Emily, a professional fencer and HIV positive woman, becomes the catalyst that spurs Verbeckas’ transformation. Burke utilizes his sparse narrative to describe the stillness Frank feels in the presence of Emily (see page 134)

Her small, dark figure against the ruin, in that green pine stillness. Along an old mill there was a slow-moving stream, the water clear in the shallows but a deep, translucent copper color in the middle.

Being Burke’s first novel, the reader probably would not have noticed the recurrence of black flies, but given my recent review of Black Flies and my recent interview of Shannon Burke, I noticed the black flies made it into this first novel as well.

I also enjoyed the Burke’s descriptions of Frank’s photography and how he frames scenes in the camera’s viewfinder. As an avid photographer, these scenes were well described. Readers will appreciate the stark images and heart that permeates the narrative of Safelight. The evolution of Frank Verbeckas is swift and satisfying.

About the Author:

Shannon Burke was born in Wilmette, Illinois and went to college at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He has published two novels, Safelight and Black Flies, 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 his wife Amy Billone and their two sons.