The Devil in Silver
Spiegel & Grau
2 September 2012
In Victor LaValle’s new novel, The Devil in Silver, Queens, New York, is the most ethnically diverse region on earth. It’s where “you will find Korean kids who sound like black kids. Italians who sound like Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans who sound like Italians. Third-generation Irish who sound like old Jews. That’s Queens. Not a melting pot, not even a tossed salad, but an all you-can-eat, mix-and-match buffet.”
LaValle’s gastro-metaphor celebrates the mixed nuts populating his Queens-set fiction. Thus far his most important nut has been Anthony James, the schizophrenic narrator/protagonist of The Ecstatic, LaValle’s first novel. A 300-pound Ivy-Leaguer, James first appeared in LaValle’s story collection, Slapboxing With Jesus. Now, LaValle has added New Hyde Hospital’s mental patients, the wackadoos, as the narrator of The Devil in Silver names them.
Readers meet LaValle’s new protagonist, Pepper, as the police forcibly admit him into New Hyde — an easier task than actual police procedure and paperwork since New York City ain’t paying cops for overtime! Does Pepper, a burly, short-fused, Quixotic, 6-foot-3, 42-year-old furniture mover, actually require mental health treatment? Depends on how “mental,” “health” and “treatment” are defined.
LaValle plays these gray definitional matters humorously, animating this bizzaro-world with a multi-ethnic, inter-generational, international crew of singularly voiced, specially named minor characters like Still Waters and Japanese Freddie Mercury. Pepper’s cohort -- Loochie, a brazen, acerbic teenage girl; Coffee, a conspiracy-theorizing Ugandan bent on securing his release with the help of the Big Boss (President Obama); and Dorry, the white-haired mother-hen, a lifer in New Hyde’s Northwest sector -- make up a loony-bin Fantastic Four.
LaValle draws the ward as a cognate for Queens and beyond. He’s reminding us Western civilized citizens that we only know ourselves as sane because we institutionalize -- incarcerate -- wackadoos. Yet the civilized and the mad organize themselves through disciplined social ordering, punishing severely those who disrupt it. There’s a thin line between madness and civilization.
To maintain order in the asylum, the Devil has been installed on a dormant wing, off-limits behind a silver door. Even Queens’ craziest shun the Devil. Blank-eyed and heavy-hoofed, The Bison-headed beast night-raids unsuspecting patients, snuffing them out ferociously. But Pepper places no faith in myths. He breaches the boundary, attempting to open the silver door. Quickly, Pepper finds himself drug-addled with restraints pinning him in bed. And then the Devil visits him.
LaValle’s title underlines our colloquial understanding of infernal madness: It’s the silver-tongued Devil inciting our bad behavior and bribing us into Judasian disloyalty. With noxious breath, he hard-boils our brains into delusional imagining. Does the Devil exist? After the Devil dances on his chest, Pepper gets religion, and with his teammates, plots to release the Devil, thrash him, and, during the chaos, break free from New Hyde.
Cross breeding popular, literary, and horror fictional styles, LaValle delivers incisive social critique through funny, brilliantly framed set-pieces. Unfortunately, LaValle’s novel didn’t frighten me.
The devil’s in LaValle’s ambitious referencing: Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest and Benchley’s Jaws; old, conservative black men and incessant conservative television punditry; Manifest Destiny and precious-metal mining; Van Gogh and T. J. Eckleberg; (purposefully) corrupt computer software and (purposefully) failing health care systems; Iron Maiden and Jay-Z. Exciting, this post-impressionist whirl of connections, but it doesn’t make The Devil in Silver scary, just fat and jittery at times. But this may be purposeful: Imagine Anthony James as the novel’s interior creator.
The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway calls the burned, sulfurous center of Queens, New York “the valley of ashes.” The crazy Queens LaValle renders in his hyper-intelligent The Devil in Silver refuses ashy death; it’s an enlivened demon-busting, human mélange.