The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle
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Pepper is a fortysomething blue collar wise guy from Queens, New York, a big man whose height and girth are exceeded only by his unfiltered mouth, naïveté, and unique ability to make every bad situation much worse. His reverse Midas touch lands him in the psychiatric unit at New Hyde Hospital, after his chivalrous attempt to protect a neighbor causes him to engage in a brawl with three men, who unbeknownst to him are undercover NYC police officers. The cops drop him off at New Hyde, where he is supposed to spend the next 72 hours in observation until his court date.
New Hyde is a financially strapped and decrepit public hospital, and the psych ward, known as Northwest, is even more dilapidated and poorly managed than the separate Med/Surg units. Pepper finds himself surrounded by a colorful group of fellow inmates, who include a benign elderly woman, who serves as his greeter and guide; his African roommate, who is obsessed with contacting any government official, including Mayor Bloomberg or President Obama, that will investigate the inhumane treatment provided to patients on the ward; and a teenage girl, whose razor wit and even sharper tongue hide her deep vulnerability and sensitivity.
Unfortunately there is also one particularly malevolent being that resides there: a hairy man-beast of superhuman strength, who the other patients refer to as 'The Devil'. This creature terrorizes the patients, who believe that he is the cause for the mysterious deaths and disappearances that plague Northwest. Pepper encounters The Devil on his first night there, and barely escapes his deadly grasp.
Pepper's narcissism and bad luck continues to plague him, as his attempts to escape and to demand his rights land him in ever deeper trouble with the medical staff and the other patients. His 72 hour stay is progressively extended, even though most believe that he doesn't belong there. Despite this, he wins the trust of several patients, who enlist him in their fight to overcome The Devil.
LaValle also describes the broken mental health system in NYC, including the notorious death of Esmin Green at King's County Hospital in Brooklyn in 2008, the mistreatment of public citizens by the NYPD, and the sometimes tense race relations in the melting pot that is the Big Apple.
This was a delightful read, and a book which transcends easy classification: Is it a mystery? a horror story? a love story? literary fiction? or African American literature? I'd say yes to all of these descriptions. More importantly, it's a well written page turner of a novel, which I believe would be appreciated by a wide audience.
As I was reading this book, I didn't quite know what to make of it, but now that I've been thinking about it I see it as a novel that shows us that everyone is human, even if we don't know how to look at them that way, and that those of us who are "different" -- whether through mental illness or something else -- still have human needs, feelings, and the desire to help others and give to society. Even the devil -- the buffalo-headed, cloven-hoofed scourge of the mental ward -- turns out to be just a man, and even a rat gets to tell his story.
The novel tells the tale of Pepper, a large white furniture mover, who is transported to the mental ward of a public hospital after getting into an altercation with three men who, unbeknownst to him, are undercover cops, a trio too lazy to arrest him with all the resulting paperwork, at the end of their shift. Supposedly there for a 72-hour observation period, he remains there apparently indefinitely once the meds kick in and the overworked and underpaid staff, most of whom are just glad to have a job in the iffy economy, do as little as necessary to keep the patients medicated and non-trouble-making. Early on, Pepper is visited by said devil, although he finds the other patients somewhat reluctant to discuss him. As various plots to rout the devil and/or escape develop, and as various mysterious events take place, Pepper gets to not only know his fellow patients, many of whom are vividly characterized, but to gain some long-missing insight into himself and compassion for others -- not, needless to say, through the efforts of the staff, but through the kindnesses and occasional nastiness of the patients.
Although I was a little unsure at the beginning whether I was going to like this book, I did eventually get into it and was fascinated by what was happening in this little community of the outcast from society. LaValle also brings in some apparently extraneous information -- the ethnic diversity of Queens, the oppressive and racist stop-and-frisk policy of the NYC police, immigration policy, the life of Vincent Van Gogh, for example -- but it all gets worked into the story. Class and race play into it too, and the exhausting working conditions of the low-paid. The highlight for me was not the plotting but the development of the characters, many of whom I became quite fond of as their personalities shone through their "crazy" behavior.
I think those who expect this to be a horror novel will be disappointed; although some of the scenes with the devil are downright scary, this is more a novel about humanity than about monsters.