Wednesday, January 09, 2013
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle
"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.