Well I promise you haven’t heard this one. The guy in question goes by the name of Pepper, which would also be a good description for his personality. Pepper’s a hothead and his trip to a Queens bar to warn his girlfriend’s ex-husband to leave her alone turns into a brawl that includes three off-duty cops. Not wanting to take the time it would require to put Pepper through the booking process, and also wanting to teach him a lesson, the three take him instead to a mental health facility, where he’s committed for a 72-hour surveillance.
That’s the starting point for LaValle’s tale. Pepper’s lack of friends or family, his temper, his mishandling of initial contacts with some of the other patients, his run-ins with the overworked staff, and the numbing effects of powerful meds soon stretch that three-day stay into months. To make matters worse, a patient who is mysteriously protected by the staff in a separate wing that nobody is allowed to enter makes nighttime trips through the ceiling tiles, occasionally murdering other residents. They call him the Devil, and most think him a monster while a few think he’s just a very sick man. Pepper becomes allied in a plot to stop him with the facility’s longest-held resident, a deceptively tough African-American teenage girl, and a man who obsessively uses the phones to try to get help from outside.
LaValle has a fluid, unusual style and a real gift for original characters. I found it easy to get immersed in his story, a kind of blend of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a monster novel like Stephen King’s It. The book is great summer reading fun, but it also has a serious side with indictments of bureaucracy and the mental health system, insightful glimpses into human nature, and a thorough exploration of what it means to be mentally ill. Pepper is an antihero whose screwups you’ll lament, whose ultimate victory you’ll always desire. To top it off the book is often flat-out funny. In short, there’s something here for almost any kind of reader, making The Devil in Silver an easy book to recommend.
Check the WRL catalog for The Devil in Silver.