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Book Review – The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle

Synopsis:  New Hyde Hospitals psychiatric ward has a new resident. It also has a very, very old one.

Pepper is a rambunctious big man, minor-league troublemaker, working-class hero (in his own mind), and, suddenly, the surprised inmate of a budget-strapped mental institution in Queens, New York. Hes not mentally ill, but that doesnt seem to matter. He is accused of a crime he cant quite square with his memory. In the darkness of his room on his first night, hes visited by a terrifying creature with the body of an old man and the head of a bison who nearly kills him before being hustled away by the hospital staff. Its no delusion: The other patients confirm that a hungry devil roams the hallways when the sun goes down. Pepper rallies three other inmates in a plot to fight back: Dorry, an octogenarian schizophrenic whos been on the ward for decades and knows all its secrets; Coffee, an African immigrant with severe OCD, who tries desperately to send alarms to the outside world; and Loochie, a bipolar teenage girl who acts as the groups enforcer. Battling the pill-pushing staff, one another, and their own minds, they try to kill the monster thats stalking them. But can the Devil die?

The Devil in Silver brilliantly brings together the compelling themes that spark all of Victor LaValles radiant fiction: faith, race, class, madness, and our relationship with the unseen and the uncanny. More than that, its a thrillingly suspenseful work of literary horror about friendship, love, and the courage to slay our own demons.

First Line:  They brought the big man in on a winter night when the moon looked as hazy as the heart of an ice cube.

Random Quote:  This was the new American Austerity.  The reality of our lives in the aftermath of economic disaster.  The tighter belts, the slashed spending, the death of compromise.  The twenty-first century threatened to look a bit like the nineteenth.  The Century of Sharp Elbows was upon us.  This economic prudence was supposed to affect everyone, but you could bet it was going to whip some people much worse.

Review:  As enlightened as we like to think ourselves, mental illness is an area where we still have a long way to go.  Stigmatized as weak-minded people who suffer from mental illness find it very difficult to receive the treatment that they need – sometimes due to lack of money and health insurance, often because admitting to this is taboo in their culture (yes, even here in America).  The human and economic cost of mental illness is a large one and yet we continue to say, in our own Puritancial manner – “Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and stop sniveling.”  Think I’m kidding?  Read any news article about PTSD and whether or not it’s “real” and then come back to me.

During the eighties some huge and distressing scandals in mental health institutions combined with a desire to spend less money on our people and more money on defense to close many inpatient facilities, dumping many people with long-term mental illness on the streets of our nations.  Among mental health professionals the idea behind deinstitutionalization was to give people an opportunity to live as normal a life as could be managed for them and included plans for transitional housing, permanent assisted living in group home situations for those who needed the structure, and a robust network of outpatient mental health care.  Most of this got lost in translation.  These days we spend a whole of money institutionalizing those we consider criminals and sometimes inpatient programs for the mentally ill become dumping grounds for these people – diagnosed or not.

I knew we were in yet another bad economic downturn when the number of homeless and mentally people dramatically increased here in Berkeley (where I live) and in Oakland (where I work).  I’ve watched the past four years as these numbers increase with new members from other places, or with those who have been on the street long enough to be driven insane.  It is a moral catastrophe and it makes me feel sad and helpless.  I give food where I can and try to speak to many, but I can’t get them off the street and I can’t give them the care many of them desperately need.

The Devil in Silver explores the plight of the mentally ill – those locked up because they should be, those locked up by accident or design; many of these people will never see the outside world again because there just isn’t anywhere for them to be.  What if you were institutionalized because it was convenient?  What would it be like to be in this new environment?  What if you discovered that the Devil was locked up with you?  What then?

Filled with authentic voices, a killer story playing with a number of horror tropes, and a pinch of social commentary, The Devil in Silver is a book that will scare you while making you question yourself and your society.  Well-written, never preachy, this book is a masterful experience.  Highly recommended.

FTC Disclosure:  Copy from publisher via NetGalley

Publishing Information:  Spiegel and Grau – August 21, 2012

Format:  Kindl

Published inBooks

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