The Devil in Silver

When a big man with a hot temper goes to warn his sort-of girlfriend’s ex-husband away, he suddenly finds himself arrested by three undercover cops who jumped into the resulting fight. To avoid paperwork and overtime, the trio instead take Pepper to a Queens mental health facility called Northwest, where he is shuffled into the system as involuntary, 72-hour commitment.

That’s just the start of The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle (Big MachineThe EcstaticSlapboxing with Jesus). Pepper’s brief sojourn turns into a much longer visit, as the combination of his anti-authority streak, disorienting medications, lack of outside contacts, corrupt staff, and his surprising involvement with some of the other patients keep him locked up in Northwest. In particular, Pepper becomes involved with three other patients and their effort to end the reign of a mysterious, bloodthirsty patient who lives in seclusion, is protected by the staff, but occasionally climbs down through the ceiling tiles and takes another patient as a victim. Dorry, the mother figure of the facility believes that he’s just an extremely ill man, but to everybody else, he’s the Devil.

Victor LaValle’s forthcoming novel (August 21st) is unlike anything you’ve read before. Saying that it’s a combination of Ken Kesey’s classic One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a monster story like Stephen King’s It will get you in the right neighborhood, but that doesn’t do the book justice. LaValle’s style is unusual, usually employing an omniscient third-person narration, but occasionally jumping into the skull of one of his characters for just a paragraph or two for the sake of an argument, a bit of insight, or a loopy joke. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s infuriating, and which side of the balance his loose, sassy style falls on in any given instance will probably depend on each reader’s taste. What it is, however, is undeniably vivid and involving.

LaValle’s sense of character is fantastic. Pepper is a great protagonist, a man who’s his own worst enemy but still easy to get behind. The other residents and staffers at Northwest are equally interesting and distinct, a couple of dozen folks with backgrounds as diverse as the demographics of Queens who are each distinguishable and human. There’s Coffee, Pepper’s roommate who spends most of his time on the pay phones trying to reach authority figures. Loochie, a skinny, young black woman, has been in mental health facilities her entire teenage and young adult life, but she has surprising humor, spirit, and fight. Xiu is a Chinese national with an admitted need for meds but an otherwise manageable life whose been trapped in the system by immigration authorities. Miss Chris is the staff enforcer, all about the rules, while Josephine still hopes to get through to the patients but ultimately fears them. Yes, they’re crazy; yes, they’re corrupt; but you’ll care about them and want to know them anyway.

Is the Devil, a monster or a man? You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out. Although this novel plays with known tropes and touches on familiar genre territory, it’s something entirely its own, and a book group that chooses to read it will find no shortage of discussion topics: the mental health establishment; the corruption that comes from authority without oversight, from people put second to rules, budgets, and technologies; the interactions that result when people from different races, classes, genders, and backgrounds are forced to live at close quarters; the dangers of temper and violence, of timidity and obsession; the power of faith and belief; and the nature of madness  to name just a few.

LaValle has got something, and while you can certainly argue that he’s not always a fantastic writer, he’s put together one hell of a book.

 

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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