“There are really only two ways to react to the extraordinary. The first is to ponder the grand purpose until all the fun is sucked away, the second is to enjoy it.”
- Victor LaValle, The Ecstatic
Listen. At this exact moment, people are leaning forward in cheap folding chairs, clutching books in their laps and telling each other simple stories: what they used to be like, what happened, and what they are like now. Stories that move from needing help to accepting help to giving help in return. Stories of overcoming demons. Creation stories.
Following that restorative model, Victor LaValle’s sensational third novel, The Devil In Silver, revisits his personal holy trinity—mental illness, horror and community—while capping a trio of novels (The Ecstatic in 2003 and Big Machine in 2009) that, in sequence, compose an epic ode to getting one’s shit together.
First, things fall apart. Situating that collapse, LaValle finds his ideal venue in the genre trappings of the “haunted insane asylum,” and The Devil In Silver begins when the door shuts: On the brink of shift change, three cops decide to shirk their own paperwork and drop combative everyoaf Pepper at the New Hyde Mental Hospital. Sure, Pepper maybe drinks too much, maybe has trouble controlling his temper. Maybe he got caught gallantly roughing up his sorta girlfriend’s controlling ex-husband … or maybe the big man got cuffed after thumping the ex of some divorcee who occasionally bends his ear down in the basement laundry. A lot depends on how you look at a thing.
Still, any way you slice it, Pepper’s not crazy.
“Worst of all fears is abandonment,” LaValle wrote in his debut novel, The Ecstatic. But in The Devil In Silver, while Pepper processes into New Hyde, LaValle amplifies desolation into an even greater mortal terror. Ditched by the NYPD, lacking family ties or close friends or anyone to report him missing, Pepper is gorged on an involuntary regimen of Lithium and Haldol, suffering the sane person’s chemical nightmare: a straightjacketing of the brain.
If the losses of physical and mental freedom aren’t freaky enough, New Hyde’s “Northwest Wing” also houses a horned, homicidal beast, a voracious devil that feeds on a never-ending supply of patients, attacking each in their most vulnerable throes of hopelessness and isolation.
Pepper’s 72-hour psych hold soon slips into indefinite confinement. He’s stuck. Powerless. Barely able to form the right words. Not a soul to listen.
Metaphorically speaking, the scenario hews close to the short stories in LaValle’s first book, Slapboxing With Jesus (1999), a stewing, loosely autobiographical collection loaded with kids acting out, kids left behind and kids marking turf while all but bursting out of their skins to be anywhere but where they are.
Left unchecked, those pressurized issues metastasize until they finally grow too big to ignore: The Ecstatic picks up as a novel after the mental breakdown of Slapboxing’s primary voice, Anthony, then devolves into a manic picaresque, sort of a Flushing, Queens, version of A Fan’s Notes, only with the part of Fred Exley played by Finch, the hyper-obese, hyper-articulate lineman from Goldie Hawn’s Wildcats. That tragicomic, oversharing, boundary-less register from LaValle earned awards and accolades, but the author speaks candidly about being miserable during this period, an extraordinary talent with all the fun sucked away.
Anthony galumphs a spectacular swath of destruction through The Ecstatic but remains barely functional, start to finish. He ends up estranged from his family with nothing to show for it except a self-penned encyclopedia of straight-to-cable monster flicks (his own catalogue of horrors).
The law of diminishing returns—you can only mine your own bullshit for so long.
“Sitting down gave Pepper trouble, too. He had to coordinate pulling the chair out
without being in its way. He had to aim his butt at the chair cushion and not
smack into the armrest instead. And he had to scoot forward his chair, which
meant working up some traction between his thermal socks and the tiled floor.”
-The Devil In Silver
Listen. Every story is a hole you climb out of, and all those people edging forward and finding their own words, the very first thing they needed to learn? How to get their butts in the seats. The second obstacle? Making it through the day. The schizophrenic narrator of Slapboxing’s “Ghost Story” summed up hospital stays in a word: “boredom.”
Sleep. Eat. Take meds. Watch the tube. Repeat.
To present tedium without becoming tedious, LaValle narrates The Devil In Silver with one arm over the reader’s shoulder, dropping science in a profane, avuncular third-person that would clown the pants off any pretentious ass who used a word like ‘avuncular.’ It’s the voice of a gleeful putter-inner, and in addition to spiking his sentences with parenthetical jokes and pop-cultural bon bons (including references to Do The Right Thing, Poltergeist, Fight Club, Elliott Smith, and Iron Maiden), LaValle riffs on birthers, Stop & Frisk and the broken windows theory of policing. For this last, LaValle reflects the concept back on the police department (or any system of authority), suggesting that in the same way the appearance of petty crime and neglect may attract crime to a standing structure, minor ethical lapses, preferential back-scratching and moral fatigue may turn official agencies into hotspots of abuse.
Despite the unmerciful psychotropic hobblings, New Hyde’s “Northwest” mental ward is no Shutter Island. Instead of splattering up the evil that men do, LaValle roots for the foundation of the 1,000-yard stare, the same institutional blindness that in 2008 allowed real-life New Yorker Esmin Green to die of neglect in the waiting area of a Brooklyn psychiatric E.R. New Hyde’s skeleton crew of orderlies, nurses and rarely present doctors each possess a default mien that permits them to clock in and ignore the unspeakable, whether through shame, callousness, exhaustion, fear or the basic reality that in the modern economy you do whatever the man says to hang on to even a lousy j-o-b.
Operating under “the new American Austerity,” New Hyde promotes repurposing as a policy buzzword. (The term means, roughly, finding new institutional uses for non-functioning infrastructure.) A concrete stairwell can be repurposed as a maximum security holding cell. Shady mortgage banking software is repurposed for maintaining patient records. Doorways are painted over and repurposed as walls. When systems inevitably fail, staffers have no tools at their disposal except the same crap that didn’t work the first time around. They spend forever “repurposing like a motherfucker.”
If Pepper and his fellow inmates want to progress beyond simply making it through the day, they have one hope: Learn to help one another.
The problem? Trust is for suckers. A sign and source of weakness. So a crucial step comes in learning to recognize and accept a genuine offer.
LaValle’s second novel, the tweedcrunk thriller Big Machine, found renewal in a childhood love of monster lore and the multiplex, audience-first traditions that hinge on suspending disbelief and enjoying the show. Hardly pure popcorn material, Big Machine still churned with big ideas, centering on a core of helping those in need: addicts, hookers and petty hustlers recruited by a secretive, supernatural research institute, The Washburn Library, where they receive room and board, dapper Harlem Renaissance threads and a daily mission.
The deity of Big Machine once spoke to the founder of The Washburn Library, declaring “I am the father of the despised child,” and the institute charges its corps of outcasts with scouring periodicals and public records for evidence of the miraculous in otherwise marginalized lives. Not only does each crop of “Unlikely Scholars” need to accept the gifts they’ve been given, they need to do so without getting swollen heads, without using their newfound self-esteem to sneer at others still in dire straits, and without hoarding their own little nuts. “Doubt is the big machine,” LaValle writes. To succeed, the Unlikely Scholars will need to trust each other—no small order, since some have such hardened survival instincts they bristle at the slightest contact.
Instead of a common mission, the patients in The Devil In Silver unite to fend off a communal foe—a devil that, at turns, appears as a bison-headed, indomitable minotaur; a two-horned but creaky beast like The Faun from Pan’s Labyrinth; and an aging but-altogether human psychopath. A lot depends on how you look at a thing.
“It’s been around long before any of us,” says Loochie (both a fellow patient and the title character of Lucretia and the Kroons, an e-novella released in tandem with The Devil In Silver). “They found it living here and built Northwest just to hold it. You understand? Northwest is a cage.”
To confront the devil, Pepper leads a pharmaceutical mutiny, recruiting several of the most convenient fellow patients: the indignant, African-born Coffee (think Annan); teen hothead Loochie; and geriatric motormouth Dorry (think of a blue fish). Before the Haldol hammerlock, Pepper would trample your mom and kid sister in a mad rush for the door; his driving instinct remains the preservation of his own sweet ass. Unmedicated, the foursome reverts back to the same behaviors that first landed them in lockdown, behaviors that soon summon not just the beast but also a S.W.A.T. team. The uprising climaxes with 41 shots and cold-blooded shades of Amadou Diallo, a young immigrant victimized by NYC police in 1999.
Afterward, Pepper is again sedated, cycling him right back to square one. Powerless. Stuck. Barely able to form the right words. Not a soul to listen.
“I know I’ve been selfish. But there’s still some good in me.
“I can stop being a coward. I can be brave. I promise.”
- Big Machine
If nothing else, Pepper comes out of this spiral remembering how to land his butt in a chair. Starting over, instead of scoping out those patients he can most readily use, Pepper falls in with an unlikely trio, three female insomniacs who spend their nights clipping articles. Each woman maintains a pair of folders: “the dreams,” brimming with hope in the form of beautiful images and lifestyle photos, and “the files,” where they collect obits of outcasts whose deaths went unremarked.
Listen. It’s loud, it’s clear, The Devil In Silver is no more about a demon locked in a repurposed stairwell than The Intuitionist is about elevators or The Brother From Another Planet is about a homeboy extra-terrestrial. Even so, LaValle has a twist of inspired magic up his sleeve. As a bit of showmanship, the straightforward horror of Lucretia And The Kroons primes the pump, flashing back to Loochie as a little girl and plummeting her into a People Under The Stairs-netherworld of lost children, mutant crackheads and murmurations of winged sewer rats. In addition to tapping her deepest reserves of courage, Loochie’s survival depends on her discovery of the capacity to trust, echoing Big Machine’s non-judgmental refrain: “The face of goodness may surprise you.”
The Devil In Silver’s reveal should surprise even those who don’t bite on Lucretia as an e-appetizer. Behind the creepy spookhouse façade, beneath the biting social satire, the book is an expression of genuine benevolence, a morality play that demonstrates Pepper’s transformation from selfishness to selflessness with dexterity and patience, right under our noses.
“You look stupid if you’re sincere these days,” concedes the elderly inmate Dorry, and LaValle sticks his neck way, way out. He risks cracks from cynical jerks who’ll skim the pages and goof on his earnest themes (“in a way, all of us have an El Guapo to face someday!”). He risks alienating horror fans with considerable stretches of inaction. And with the novel’s deceptively casual prose, he risks running afoul of those arbiters who insist “literary fiction” must be this and cannot be that. (LaValle pre-emptively jabs at this population, repurposing exclusionary snoots in the form of a corpulent, self-satisfied rat.)
In this bold assumption of risk, LaValle comes full circle from Slapboxing’s pocket masterpiece “Chuckie,” where Anthony passively watches as ruthless thugs descend upon a pair of his playmates. He outs himself as the kid who can’t be counted on. The kid whose only priority is self-protection. The kid whose own dad bailed—so why the hell would anyone expect loyalty?
“Ten is too young to learn how you are,” Anthony says.
LaValle’s friend and former roommate Mat Johnson writes in the hilariously brilliant 2011 novel Pym: “In this age when reality is built on big lies, what better place for truth than fiction?”
In The Devil In Silver, confronting perhaps the biggest lie of all, LaValle suggests that underfunded social services, police brutality, racial division, mass foreclosures and the concentration of wealth don’t turn out to be symptoms of a malfunctioning system but the predictable results of a system doing exactly what it was designed to do—a possibility far more frightening than the existence of monsters.
Rather than wash his hands of the system, LaValle believes everyone and everything capable of change. You don’t just have to take his word for it; he shows exactly how it works. Simple as Scrooge: you give to get. Simple, but never easy, an ongoing process that demands sacrifice, work, hope, trust and above all else, patience: “… victory rarely happens right away. Triumph requires a profoundly long view.”
Within that long view, believing everyone and everything capable of getting their shit together, LaValle even rehabilitates the emptiest of buzzwords, turning repurposing into more than a euphemism for re-jiggering junk.
He repurposes the haunted house as a place of spiritual rebirth and repurposes literary fiction as a come-as-you-are, wide-open field. He repurposes his own fictional institutions, taking Big Machine’s top-secret Washburn Library and repurposing it as a rolling cart of paperbacks made available to anyone in need of a word. He repurposes Pepper, turning the big galoot into the kind of man who’d throw an arm around LaValle’s younger self and show the kid the ropes. Repurposing like a motherfucker.
Nathan Huffstutter is a regular contributor to The Nervous Breakdown and The Collagist, and his fiction will be appearing in the fall issue of The Literary Review.