Never mind that copies of The Devil in Silver were given away at the World Horror Convention, or that its title is spelled out in flaming letters, The Devil in Silver, award- winning author Victor Lavalle’s latest book is not a horror novel. It is the saddest, funniest and most desperately hopeful novel I’ve read this year. Frankly, I’m tired of reading novels about politicians, hotshot entrepreneurs, female Supreme Court nominees, bestselling authors or hedge fund savants. You want down to earth folk? Try “The big man” of The Devil in Silver, a white guy who works for a moving van company; a guy wrestled to the ground, handcuffed, and brought to a psych ward of a New York City hospital by three undercover cops.
The “big man,” known as Pepper had been trying to protect his girlfriend from her angry ex-husband. He didn’t know the cops were cops. How could he? They never ID’d themselves. Wouldn’t it be something if every time trouble came our way it would identify itself? Lavalle takes us deep into a world where nothing is as it appears to be. Pepper is in for a 72 hour stay, if he behaves himself. But by the next morning, after his first failed attempt to escape, we know this won’t happen.
While still seated at his intake conference table upon the night of his arrival, Pepper becomes aware of strange but barely detectable noises and smells. The sounds and odors recur a couple of times but, much to Pepper’s disbelief, nobody else appears to have taken notice. It is an omen of horrifying proportions.
Lavalle writes with a straight-forwardness that compels the reader to pay close attention, as when describing patients in an orderly queue, waiting to get their morning meds: “Some might doubt the mentally ill could pull off an orderly queue.” These are crazy people, right? But he continues: “If most of these people weren’t wearing blue pajamas, you’d have thought you were in a bank line, waiting to talk to the only available teller.”
Lavalle’s novel is filled with characters you might never live next door to, but whose emotional lives are often uncomfortably familiar. And the unholy smells and noises? Man or beast, the devil in silver is everyone’s (patients, staff and maybe our own) worst fears. The murderous bent of the devil, the constant consumption of medication to maintain a skewed sense of sanity are real, but equally real is the need for love, companionship, respect, and understanding. The staff of the psych ward of New Hyde Hospital is in as much trouble as its patients and its mismanagement and secrets are echoes of the real world.
When addressing both worlds Lavalle is brilliantly seamless. Pepper’s roommate, Coffee, runs through the story as a sort of Alice’s white rabbit. Instead of incessantly checking a pocket watch, Coffee’s goal is to beg coins for the telephone, to speak with anyone in authority, including politicians, who will investigate the deplorable conditions at New Hyde. Finally, making a call to a number he believes will reach Mr. Obama, he dials the area code 510, and for those of us natives of Northern California, we know he has dialed not only the wrong city, but a city madly trying to solve its own problems. This is the real world.
Pepper, Loochie, Dorry, Coffee and a host of others, patients and staff, are never two-dimensional in Lavalle’s hands. The novel is more than a serious statement about the state of today’s psych wards and their patients (including their families), it is also a most rewarding invitation to step into a world that crosses just about every ethnic, cultural and socially held belief we’ve ever clung to for dear life. Victor Lavalle’s novel will make you laugh out-loud, bite your knuckles a few times, probably get teary-eyed and certainly entertain you. But most of all, The Devil in Silver is a story that sticks. -s.s.
Also available by Victor Lavalle: Big Machine (2009); The Ecstatic (2003); Slapboxing with Jesus (1999); Lucretia and the Kroons (2012) eBook.