Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle

An unusual, ungainly novel about mental illness and human solidarity that gathers force in its powerful conclusion.

"the devil in silver" (which we learn, late in the game, and awkwardly via exposition from a minor, is a term for an chemical poisoning affliction silver miners suffered from in the late 19th century) here is a half-mythological, half-real resident of a mental hospital in Queens, NY which other patients have witnessed and been attacked by over many years.

Pepper, a 42 year old neer-do-well gets unjustly committed to the hospital for threatening his girlfiend's ex.  a strapping 6 foot three, large and powerful man, he is quickly unhinged and diminished by the hospital's heavy prescription of haldol and lithium.

other patients -- the elderly Dorry, the "mother" of the ward, the teenaged Loochie, Pepper's roommate Coffee, and a well-sketched cast of more minor character patients -- band with Pepper in a demented, helpless, hopeless and eventually successful attempt to subdue "the devil in silver."

Certainly there are elements to the "horror" genre to the story, since "the devil" is literarlly a demented isolated mental patient hiding in the ceiling tours, who looks alternately like a bison and a crazy old man, but Lavalle's book is just to multi-dimensional and culturally alert and busts right out the schlock horror conventions.  Lavalle revistits the desitution and failure of the American mental health treatment of the poor and forgotten -- his gentle, ribald and clever attention to a host of patients (and the pathetic staff of the hospita) make a much larger accomplishment here.

Despite some awkwardness in the prose, including occasional jarring shifts in the point of view, which is chiefly Pepper throughout, the novel has a wonderful idiomatic control and depth to it.  I found it amazing, in the end.

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