It’s impossible to read Shannon Burke’s bleak debut novel without recalling Martin Scorsese’s 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead. Both feature unblinking portraits of paramedics laboring in a gritty, brutal New York City. Both depict raw pain and ugliness and are more despairingly voyeuristic than sympathetic. Both feature protagonists who are deep but humorless types well-suited to the long, dark nights of soul-saving. The two lead characters even share a name: Frank.
Burke’s novel tries, however, to throw in a couple of interesting conceits into the mix. His Frank is an amateur photographer (the title refers to the low, film-safe light used in darkrooms) who takes clandestine shots of the elements he encounters in his work—injury, illnesses, whores, the desperate and insane. And, while coping with the suicide of his father, Frank uses photography as a way of parsing his pain into something he can understand. His only friends seem to be his ragtag, somewhat feral fellow paramedics and Emily, whom he meets on a gunshot call, wounded and HIV+. The two are drawn to each other for reasons that seem to have more to do with their common burdens of grief than any particular kind of personal connection. All told, it’s a story whose leanness seems hard for the author to handle.
Burke employs a spare, muscular writing style that doesn’t quite work here; you get the impression more of a man trying to be stoic in the face of tragedy, and choking back tears a little, than of the truly incisive economy of language. His descriptions of Frank’s emotional outbursts have a forced sense of machismo about them—as he cries in the alley outside the hospital: “I tried to stop and I could not. I tried. Could not. And then I leaned against the wall, making a hoarse, choking, animal sound.” The result leaves you wanting either more or less—either a truly bloodless account of bloody, horrible things, which would necessitate losing the love interest, or a slightly more felt, more skillfully articulated story of a doomed love affair, one where feelings aren’t packaged up quite so awkwardly.