Safelightby Shannon Burke
It’s 1990, and New York City is in shambles: unemployment reigns, crack wars rage, and whole neighborhoods burn as delinquent landlords cash in. Struggling to come to terms with his father’s death, paramedic and photographer Frank Verbeckas descends into the chaos and misery of upper Manhattan, taking photographs of the ill, the wounded, the dying, and the… See more details below
It’s 1990, and New York City is in shambles: unemployment reigns, crack wars rage, and whole neighborhoods burn as delinquent landlords cash in. Struggling to come to terms with his father’s death, paramedic and photographer Frank Verbeckas descends into the chaos and misery of upper Manhattan, taking photographs of the ill, the wounded, the dying, and the down-and-out. Accompanying him on his wanderings are his loudmouthed partner, Burnett; his best friend, Hock, who boosts drugs from the hospital; and his brother, Norman, a surgeon who can’t understand why Frank is in such pain. Frank’s ruin seems inevitable, but when he meets Emily, a professional fencer whose days are numbered by a fatal illness, his world changes. Against everyone’s advice, Frank and Emily fall in love. Together, they try to find a way out of the murk of guilt and sadness and learn to draw meaning and beauty from despair.
In short, cinematic scenes, with not a word wasted and nothing told that can be shown, Shannon Burke leads us on a powerful journey through the darkest precincts of the street and of the soul. Honest, terse, and enormously moving, Safelight is a debut of remarkable depth, a stunning, clear-eyed, and sympathetic portrait of American life and death–a love story not for the faint of heart.
From the Hardcover edition.
“There is a dark side in all of us and Burke is not afraid of it. In Safelight, he explores our all-too-human instincts without pity, condescension, or romance. He creates characters that are real, that feel, and that make us feel–and he does so with formidable grace. This book will make you cry. But it will be worth it.”
“Burke immerses the reader in the urgent world of emergency medicine. Using photography sometimes as his weapon, sometimes as his moral eye, paramedic Frank Verbeckas explores the blurred lines between victim and victimizer, the criminal and the cop, as well as his own difficult past. It is a stunning debut novel about what it is to be human, to feel.”
–A. M. HOMES
“A powerful, hypnotic, and strangely beautiful vision of hell on earth. Burke’s voice floats out over our hemisphere amidst the distinctive strains of Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, and Frederick Exley. But in the end, his frequency is all his own. A fearless debut.”
“Pitch-perfect dialogue and [a] feel for male camaraderie give [Safelight] an electric charge. . . . Burke’s evocation of a murky world, where savior and sinner come in one macho package, . . . makes this an exhilarating standout.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
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Read an Excerpt
She came into view at the top of the stairway and motioned to hurry us. Burnett, who wasn’t going to hurry for any- one, kept climbing at the same indolent pace. We found her on the third floor in an open doorway. Beyond her, an empty room—white walls, folded canvas tarps, a dried roller, stacked cans. I smelled paint.
“We here for you?” Burnett asked.
“No. Him,” she said.
She shifted her eyes toward a shut door at the end of the newly painted white room. Burnett walked past her.
“Locked,” she said. “It’s locked.”
Burnett tried the knob, put his shoulder into it, then stepped back.
“I don’t know. Like this . . .”
She showed the length of the gun with two hands.
“Whatta you think?” he asked. “He ever tried before?”
“I don’t know.”
“You see him load it?”
She shook her head.
“Well, this is stupid. Don’t go near the door.”
That was it for Burnett. He walked to the end of the hallway, jerked the window open, and felt for cigarettes. She leaned against the doorframe and watched him sullenly. I thought I ought to say something.
“It’s not our job,” I said. “Some barricaded patient. What’re we gonna do?” Then, “You’re his girlfriend?”
“I hardly know him. I’m part of his group.”
“I’m positive,” she said.
I didn’t understand what she meant. Then I did.
She looked as if she was just out of college. Brown hair partway down her back, olive skin, a navy pullover sweatshirt with dangling white cords coming out of brass sealed eyelets. With her shy demeanor, thin, nervous mouth, big eyes, and scrawny body, she wasn’t particularly attractive. The dispatched report said her name was Emily Pascal.
“What’s his count?”
“Ten. So he’s got nothing to lose,” she said.
We could hear sirens, far away at first, then closer. Down the hallway, Burnett stood with two hands on the windowsill. Emily Pascal leaned off the doorframe.
“Don’t go in there,” I said.
“I just want to check,” she said. “Before the cops. Maybe he’ll go willingly.” She started into the apartment, into the newly painted room. I reached out as if to restrain her but she gave me a sharp look.
“Don’t touch me.”
I pulled my hands away. Burnett glanced over, bored.
“Don’t let her in, Frank.”
But she’d already gone in. Then two things happened, one right after the other. The sirens outside the window wound down and stopped and in the sudden, unexpected silence afterward there was a loud pop from the inner room. I heard something fall.
“I don’t fucking believe it,” Burnett said.
He tossed his cigarette out the window and started back, not hurrying at all. He joined me in the doorway. The girl, Emily Pascal, now lay on her side, making little moaning noises. Her right leg was out straight, but her left leg was bent, and around the left knee I saw a hole in her jeans about the size of a pea. Around that hole there was a growing purplish stain.
From the Hardcover edition.
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