“The Devil in Silver” by Victor LaValle

I was eagerly looking forward to The Devil in Silver, the follow up (not sequel, as I’d assumed it would be) to Big Machine, which I discovered during the 2010 Morning News Tournament of Books, and really enjoyed.

I noticed over the last year that the date for Devil in Silver’s release was pushed back at least once. LaValle reveals why in his author’s note at the end–his wife gave birth to a son in May 2011 and that resulted in some changes to his writing routine that put it past deadline, but also gave him experiences that he incorporated into this wild novel.

Most of the book is told through the view of Pepper, a big white guy who gets put in a mental institution for a 72 hour observation after tussling with some cops, but ends up staying a little bit longer. He struggles (literally) to get out, but they drag him (literally and figuratively) back in. From the start, he’s aware of something beastly, weird and scary in the psych ward of New Hyde Hospital in New York City.

The snort came for a third time. It was even closer now. Immediately to his right. As if the animal had crept right up to his ear. Even worse, there was a smell. Musky and warm, like old blood. It made his throat close, and he wanted to wretch [sic]. The hospital’s staff members sat around the converence table taking notes, or watching him. Not one of them seemed to notice anything. How could they not smell that stink? (14)

Pepper grudgingly begins to accept his situation, and interact with the staff and patients around him. As in Big Machine, the administration may or may not be evil, and what looks like a monster may not be. A ragtag group of misfits stumbles toward some kind of truth, fragmenting along the way. In addition to Pepper’s point of view, we get many others, including a very strange one toward the end that I won’t spoil but that I enjoyed a lot.

There’s a lot going on in this crazy quilt of a novel: literary horror, social commentary on the treatment of the mentally ill, character sketches from different walks of life, and a character toward the end that I suspect is LaValle’s Gary Stu (a male Mary Sue):

A big man. Not tall but wide. The polite term is heavyset. (The clinical term is hyperobese.) A black guy…Late twenties or early thirties, his hair was kind of a wild puff and his head was down. …interested in his own toes. He had his arms crossed. (402)

The book was scary, but had some laugh-out-loud moments, and some downright sweet ones, along with some terribly sad ones. It engaged me, made me loath to put it down, and pulled me through from start to finish. It’s possible that it’s kind of a mess, and has uneven stuff in it, but if so, I didn’t even notice.

In an interesting bit of synchronicity, I recently read The Silver Linings Playbook, whose main character also spent time in a mental ward, also lost large chunks of time there, also had violent tendencies, and in one scene, shared a tiny box of cereal across the table from another female character. It was a strange mirroring, probably coincidence, but fascinating.

I recall exchanging emails with LaValle after he did an author Skype chat with one of my book groups, Books and Bars, but I can’t find any record of it. (Did I imagine it?) In it, I tried politely to express my worry that he’d pull a Matrix, and follow up a promising first work with a crappy second one. In my opinion, he didn’t. I was sad not to meet up with the two main characters from Big Machine, but glad to meet these new ones, and interested to see what the next book might hold. Well played, Mr. LaValle, well played.

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