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by Shannon Burke

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Safelight, Shannon Burke’s novel of paramedics and violent death in New York’s tougher quarters, is provoking and disturbing. How could it be otherwise? What is startling and unexpected, however, is that despite the unblinking, bloodstained photo-realism of its reportage, Safelight is above all a work of nerveless intelligence, disarming tenderness, and hard-won optimism.”

“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 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)

Publishers Weekly
In this dark, tender debut, Frank Verbeckas is a young paramedic patrolling the mean streets of Manhattan. Frank's real passion, however, is photography; he's constantly snapping pictures of injured and dead bodies while on his rounds. "I don't like healthy people," he tells his brutish partner, Burnett. Though Frank treats his photographs as just a harmless hobby, the obsession runs much deeper. What he's really after is photography's ability to give him "a clarity and precision" that he lacks in real life, where the violence of his job punctuates an ever-present loneliness. His father is dead; his mother's in another state; his surgeon brother treats him with contempt. Frank's only refuge is the homemade darkroom in his apartment, where he spends hours under the "weightless, red glow" of a safelight. His emotional numbness gets him into trouble when he joins up with Burnett and another medic to sell stolen drugs from the hospital. But his relationship with 21-year-old Emily Pascal, a fencer infected with HIV, finally shakes him out of his detachment. The doomed romance is rather sentimental (like a minimalist, edgy Love Story), but Burke's spare prose and sharp eye for the beauty in urban misery makes this a moving tale of lost souls searching for permanence in a chaotic world. Agent, David McCormick. (Sept. 7) Forecast: This short novel packs an emotional punch that could make it a word-of-mouth hit. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Frank, a paramedic working in the gritty streets of Harlem, carries his camera along on calls. His morbid obsession with capturing ghastly images not to mention his falling for an HIV-positive woman and passive decision to enter a drug-snatching scheme with fellow paramedics is starting to make people wonder and his brother worry. Frank is passing through a tunnel of grief, and it remains to be seen what the light at the end will reveal. One thing is sure his vision changes as he develops the images he's captured in the darkroom and sorts them out when they are fixed. Burke's remarkable debut, which will arrest readers from the first paragraph, is direct, crisp, and cinematic, its prose matching the unadorned and chilled landscape in which the story takes place. Even with its minimalist quality, the novel manages to move the reader with unexpected swells of feeling. Highly recommended. Jyna Scheeren, Troy P.L., NY Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A paramedic/photographer falls in love with an AIDS patient in a debut notable for its gritty realism. They may not have the status of cops and firemen, but paramedics are on the front line, too. The job was worse in New York during the early 1990s, when crime was rampant and the city was being hit hard by the AIDS/crack epidemics. Frank Verbeckas, not long out of college, is a medic at Harlem hospital. He has become a connoisseur of the macabre, whipping out his camera to shoot the dead or damaged before loading them onto the ambulance with his partner Burnette, an obnoxious loudmouth. Frank may sound sick and creepy, but don't rush to judgment: He is a mass of contradictions (and a fine photographer). His own trauma came when, after nursing his father through a long illness, he found him dead in the bathtub, a suicide. Spiraling into severe depression, Frank became a medic to cauterize the wound. Called to minister to another suicide, this one an AIDS patient, Frank meets Emily, who is also HIV-positive, and the two start dating (Frank uses condoms). Burke cross-cuts between their awkward courtship, which blossoms into a doomed love, and Frank's on-the-job trials. The medics, led by the enigmatic Gil Hook, steal drugs from the hospital as a sideline, while guys with guns stand guard. Frank participates, but he's too weird to be one of the boys. Burke's pitch-perfect dialogue and feel for male camaraderie give these scenes an electric charge. Looming in the background is one of the surgeons, Frank's abrasive brother Norman, furious about the thefts but unwilling to snitch. As Emily's T-cell count drops precipitously, Frank quits; he has already seen one corpse too many. The scenesbetween the lovers are touching, if a tad predictable, but it's Burke's evocation of a murky world, where savior and sinner come in one macho package, that makes this an exhilarating standout.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.50(d)

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.

“What caliber?”

“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.

Meet the Author

SHANNON BURKE is a novelist and screenwriter. Before moving to his current home in Knoxville, he worked as a paramedic in Harlem and lived in Chicago; Chapel Hill; New Orleans; Los Angeles; Prescott, Arizona; Bryan, Texas; and Mexico. Safelight is his first novel.

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Safelight 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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