The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle

Pepper’s not mentally ill, but he’s in a mental hospital nonetheless, and he wants to get out before his automatic bill payments drain his checking account–and before he’s stalked and destroyed by the devil who lives behind the silver door at the end of the hall.

I rarely cry when I read books. Like, I’m talking under ten times in my whole reading life. So when I tell you that the end of The Devil in Silver moved me to tears, you get why that matters.

Victor LaValle is one of the best contemporary writers I can think of. I love the way he uses genre to do more than tell a good story, without forgetting to get the genre part right. (I’m looking at you, Margaret Atwood). LaValle’s literary pedigree is impeccable. I heard him read the opening of the wonderful Big Machine at the 92nd St Y in Manhattan. But unlike so many young New York City novelists, LaValle seems immune to pretention and hipsterism. He’s obviously a geek at heart–a geek who writes prose that kills. It’s like Stephen King and Dom DeLillo had a baby who inherited the best traits from each and got none of either’s self-indulgence. I mean, listen to this opening paragraph:

They brought the big man in on a winter night when the moon looked as hazy as the heart of an ice cube. It took three cops to wrestle and handcuff him. They threw him in their undercover cruiser and drove him to New Hyde mental hospital. This was a mistake. They shouldn’t have brought him there. But that wasn’t going to save him.

But let me also give you a taste of LaValle’s humor, from the description of a pizzeria called Sal’s:

It had also once been own by a guy named Sal. Now it was actually owned and operated by a man named Joseph Angeli, but who was going to pay to fabricate a whole new awning? You?

The story is pretty simple: Pepper gets picked up by the cops for a domestic dispute. Since the city cut their overtime pay, rather than stay late and not get paid to do the paperwork to arrest Pepper and hold him for the weekend, they dump him in a city-run mental hospital. And there Pepper stays, and stays, and stays, seemingly forgotten.

On Pepper’s first night in the hospital, he’s visited by a ghoulish apparition–a monster with the head of a bull and the body of an elderly man. The other patients tell Pepper that this is the Devil, and that the Devil is killing the patients. Pepper doesn’t know if he should believe them, until he is attacked and nearly killed himself.

There is so much great stuff going on in this book that it’s better suited for a conversation than a review. I loved seeing Loochie again, from LaValle’s novella Lucretia and the Kroons. I am still pondering on the ways that the story flipped and reversed and mixed things up in every way I can think of. I’m blown away by the way the book was culturally and politically relevant without being didactic or self-aware. I feel like it might be perfect.

Please, somebody, read it!

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