The last two novels I read were big disappointments, so I was really excited when, a few pages into The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle, I realized I was embarking on a book I wasn’t going to want to put down. I liked more and more as I got deeper into it.
The Devil in Silver is a super active novel for one set almost entirely within the confines of a public psychiatric in-patient facility. There was mystery, suspense, violence, love–a lot going on. Usually, plot isn’t my biggest concern when I’m reading, but I really appreciated everything that happened in this story. The protagonist, Pepper, was institutionalized by a trio of police officers who were saved some paperwork by committing him rather than incarcerating him. At times, he is desperate to escape, at others, he feels compelled to protect his fellow patients. He becomes immersed in the world of the hospital and that world infiltrates his. What was so great about his repeated attempts to escape is that each one did different work than the last. He evolved so much over the course of the book, even though his circumstances didn’t necessarily change.
One aspect of the novel that really impressed me is that I truly cared about and knew a whole network of characters surrounding Pepper. Some of them were in the book from the beginning, but some were introduced late in the novel and yet didn’t seem inserted, tacked-on, or unnecessary as can sometimes happen with late-additions. Pepper’s roommate, Coffee, was a particularly effective character who changed dramatically–in the perception of others–over the course of the book. And who else managed to earn my sympathies by the end? THE DEVIL.
Did the Devil really live in the silver-doored room? Can’t say.
As a Queens resident, I loved all the Queens-y details in the novel. Victor LaValle wove in so much real-world New York, but not the kind of New York we often get to see on the page. Northern Boulevard! Coffee was obsessed, for a while, with reaching Comptroller John Liu by phone. A couple of short chapters are dedicated to real-life outrages like the one in which a woman, ignored by passing hospital staff, died on a waiting-room floor. There’s a fantastic, completely integrated argument against stop-and-frisk, in which Pepper, who is white, likens it to the blind medicating of the psychiatric patients. I just have to reproduce it, from page 143:
It wasn’t about whether or not he took his pills, and it wasn’t about whether or not some kids had a little weed in their pockets. This wasn’t about an infraction, but dictating a philosophy of life: certain types of people must be overseen. Pepper hadn’t considered this problem before, he realized, because he hadn’t been one of those types. Until now.
And in a terribly dramatic, sad scene, an African character is shot by police. How many times? Forty-one.
LaValle wrote a deeply political novel, but kept it colloquial, fast-paced, literary, heartfelt, and, despite all the action, characters, and themes at play, tight. I could write another twenty pages about it. Everyone, please go read it so we can discuss.