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Another fine mess

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The Devil in Silver - Victor LaValle Wonderful.

But not what I'd imagined, reading the blurbs and description (promising "literary horror" and a monster in the halls of a hospital), or even from the glorious loopy genre reaches of LaValle's last Big novel. Oh, sure, yeah: there is a monster. Or, something like -- when Pepper is dragged onto the ward in New Hyde Hospital, a slippery way for the cops who busted him to avoid overtime paperwork, he finds himself grappling not just with the deadening rituals of institutional "medical" attention and the lively interactions with ward residents but also with a big, buffalo-headed man-beast who pops out of the ceiling and stomps, smashes, terrifies in the wee hours of the morning. And the arc of the story follows the formation of a rag-tag team, seeking to destroy this terror.

This is the familiar stuff of monster movies--outsiders, losers, freaks at the margins recognize a danger that the establishment ignores (or tacitly appreciates) . . . and these outcasts find themselves, reaffirm their humanity, casting out the threat, the beast, the true Other.

LaValle slyly deploys the conventions (hell, the ward reading group decides to read Jaws) as really damn useful tools to draw us in. (He even now and again whips out some explicit exposition which--lovingly, smartly, with a disarming straightforwardness--tells us what's going on here: the ill are always called monsters, so let's think again about the novel's Devil, okay?) Or he recognizes, as all of us horror fans do, that the Monster's always a nice treat, but the team's the main course. We walk onto the ward with Pepper, just as clueless about the place as he is, and we slowly acclimate to the loss of privacy, the pushing of pills, the consequent sludging of consciousness, the daily trudge through dull tasks, the sleeping, the sleeping, the sleeping. But there is also--once he grudgingly lets go of his resistance--community. We meet Dorry, Loochie, Coffee, Sam, Samantha, Mr. Mack, Mr. Waverly, Sue. We learn histories yet not in swatches of backstory -- in asides, in flashes of insight, in occasional guarded conversation. We walk the ward, too, and with the ward we grow comfortable, almost at home ('though never at peace with the degradations of the place). And only then--or only every now and again--does the Monster step out of the shadows, even though it gets top billing.

LaValle's monster story has its magic but the realism's the real wonder. This is a very fine, funny, moving novel about sometimes-damaged, caring people caught up in systems that keep damaging them. It's a lovely tribute to the messy rich lives of selves (not Others); it's as clear-eyed a depiction of the burdens of institutionalized imprisonment of the mentally ill as any you'll find -- and unlike Cuckoo's Nest (a book the reading group rejects, for this very reason:) it's no simplistic metaphor for alienation or marginalization. The Devil in Silver is a great read, and a smart indictment of how we treat others, and it manages to be blaringly obvious about the latter in a way that avoids preciousness or preaching. It's not quite as exuberantly delirious in its plotting or prose as some of his earlier work, but the gentler pace and simpler style allows LaValle to show off his phenomenal chops at shaping character.

Thanks to NetGalley and Random House for an advance electronic galley.