The Devil in Silver

  • Victor La Valle
  • Spiegel & Grau
  • 432 pp.

A horror story with a heart, this novel employs the supernatural as a backdrop for life’s big issues.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Robelen

It’s 3 a.m. You’re locked in a dingy room somewhere, with a blaring TV and what looks like two dozen Port Authority residents — all spewing Kafka, Kesey, and art criticism! (What the–?!?). Are you dreaming? Wake up! Snap out of it!

Then you remember — you’re reading Victor LaValle’s latest novel, The Devil in Silver. “Phew!” you say and move on to the next wild and wily chapter.

But for the book’s hero, Pepper — a really big, 40-something, definitely single, working-class white guy from Queens — there’s no waking up from the living nightmare of “Northwest,” the decrepit locked psych ward of New Hyde Hospital, a nearly forgotten public health facility on the farthest edge of the city.

Arrested on an assault charge (over the honor of a lady), Pepper is hauled into the emergency room for a quickie intake evaluation and 72-hour involuntary commitment because the cops don’t feel like waiting all night for a judge over at the courthouse. Almost immediately Pepper senses dark forces at work in the late night interview room, something rank, matted, moist, moving with slovenly weight, under the table. A beast. Right there! Doesn’t anyone else see it? hear it? SMELL IT?! No, this can’t be happening. Oh, but it is.

So begins LaValle’s LOL funny and DOA serious picture of the contemporary American public mental health system that would (and should) scare the bejeezus out of anyone with half a grain of sanity. From intake to release, LaValle, an award-winning writer of horror fiction, holds readers in a psychological straightjacket of entertainment, spicing fine narrative with street talk and rock ‘n roll (and parentheticals!). Meanwhile he treats them to eloquent digressions working as literary wry smiles, including a respectful and appropriate nod to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

From the start, Pepper is on a quest to get out of Northwest. But what is supposed to be a three-day wait for freedom becomes a slow-motion descent into hell, as the hours stretch into days, into weeks, into months. Pepper suffers the tortures of the damned as he adjusts (or not) to Haldol-filled days and plunges (or not) into the abyss with his fellow patients, some of them residents for years (including a few with “some of the most awful teeth … this side of the nineteenth century.”) Pretty grim, man.

Eventually, Pepper builds a rapport and a conspiracy with three other patients: Dorry, an older woman who knows everything about Northwest; Loochie, a teenager with anger and hair problems; and Coffee, Pepper’s roommate with a serial phone-calling fetish. Other distinguished characters enter Pepper’s life at Northwest, among them a Chinese lady, two nattily-dressed older gents, and Vincent Van Gogh (yes, that Vincent Van Gogh).

Then there are the staff (they have keys!), including “Scotch Tape,” the orderly and Miss Chris, the West Indies’ answer to Mildred Ratched (speaking of Kesey). They make the “rules” — take your meds, don’t try to escape, give up the TV remote at the end of your turn, and, above all, don’t ever, ever go near the silver door at the end of the hallway known as Northwest Four. In fact, “You don’t go near Northwest Four!” And don’t ask why. (Hint: It starts with “D”!)

Soon, though, Pepper doesn’t need to touch that silver door (although he wants to) because the Devil/beast begins to rear its stinking, ugly head and cloven feet directly at Pepper and the helpless others, attacking and crushing at will. Pepper comes to know that he was meant to be there, to serve others — by killing the Devil behind the silver door.

Chaos, mayhem and bloody slaughter ensue. (This is a horror story after all.) And it’s a wild and crazy fight with the kind of looking-glass logic that makes your head spin. And it’s a lot like what we hear about on the news. And it brings Pepper to a turning point, as he realizes that, rather than being rigged, “the system is working and it hates us.”

From here on, LaValle gets down and shows readers the errors of their ways: people and situations may not be exactly as one thinks they are. For Pepper, the secret to killing the Devil (and getting the hell out of Northwest!) may lie, not in fighting, but in something much bigger. Perhaps he must come to terms with the sins he has committed, with the racist or sexist or hurtful ideas he has held, many unrecognized until now. Like a lot of people. Maybe even you.

With excellent storytelling and a gift for interpolating dialogue, thoughts, and commentary seamlessly yet unambiguously, LaValle clues the reader in to the reality underlying the seemingly surreal situation. “Pepper took his hand off Coffee’s shoulder. He looked down at Coffee with a look of pleading. Would Coffee go in first? But Coffee just shook his head. Coffee sure wasn’t going in to investigate on Pepper’s behalf. He wasn’t about to be … the one who scouts ahead and gets his ass sliced in two. Somewhere near the first ten minutes of the movie.”

Though billed as a horror writer, LaValle may be better considered a writer who employs the supernatural as a backdrop for the “big issues.” In his previous novel, Big Machine, LaValle used religion and inexplicable phenomena to take the reader to the depths of American racism. Here he uses a fight with the Devil himself to chronicle the horrific battles around us every day — poverty, gender inequity, bigotry, and a mental health care system on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Of the last he writes, “The ugly truth was that these patients weren’t here to be cured. There were no cures for them. They had an illness that had to be managed. … They were like ships that would never find a shore.”

Yet, depressing as some of these issues are, we are fortunate because this big, old, hairy horror story has a big, old, hairy heart. Victor LaValle knows we humans are jonesing for hope in the face of the true evil and horror around and within us. As long as the human heart is beating, there is love, which can take the Devil straight on!

The Devil in Silver is a scary, hilarious, irreverent, righteous, eloquent, low-brow, touching, judgmental, sexy, old-fashioned and immensely readable book by one of America’s coolest, most in-touch writers. Go there, if you can.

Elizabeth Robelen is a member of the Editorial Board of The Washington Independent Review of Books.

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