Book Review: Victor LaValle’s Novel, THE DEVIL IN SILVER

If you went into a coffee shop in New York City before the pandemic, chances are you’d have found somebody hunched over something that they were writing, maybe in a notebook, maybe on a laptop. They wouldn’t be much to look at, for the most part. We writers are like rats in big cities. Everywhere.

But the guy I’m picturing in my mind now is extremely intent on what he’s working on. He frequents two donut shops, and is in them for two hours every day up in the Northern region of Manhattan. He looks like he hasn’t slept much, because he and his wife have a newborn child. And he’s scared shitless that he won’t make a deadline set by his publisher.

At first, he tries to block out the antics of the people around him in those restaurants and when he visits the grungy Port Authority Bus Terminal at the George Washington Bridge to use the wretched restroom. But then, he starts to realize that all the riff-raff of humanity around him is pretty inspiring.

“Each day I had the privilege to hear, see (and sometimes smell) a cast of characters as broad and beguiling as anything out of Dickens or Days of Our Lives. I’m talking about the old woman trying to hand out Spanish-language editions of The Watchtower inside Port Authority, the fruit and vegetable sellers lining the sidewalks … the Chinese women selling bootleg DVDs out of their handbags, the addicts panhandling cars coming of the George Washington Bridge.”

So writes Victor LaValle in the “Author’s Note” section of his novel, THE DEVIL IN SILVER. And as you’re probably guessing already, I really fell hard for this book. It’s billed as being in the horror genre. And that’s not my jam. But the funny thing is, this isn’t a scary book. Sure, there’s some violence, but no more than a typical movie crime drama. What drew me in was the cast of oddball characters who are fighting their personal demons and taking a lot of pharmaceuticals within a run-down insane asylum in Queens.

The hero of the tale, Pepper, is a brawny blue-collar guy who works for a moving company. He’s completely sane but gets thrown in the asylum after raising a ruckus with some cops. At first, he just wants to get out of there. A mystery unfolds about a cannibalistic devil with the head of a bison that’s living on the asylum’s second floor and gets his nutrition by feeding on the inmates along with some rodents. And the asylum staff just seems to turn a blind eye.

While that makes everyone really want to get the hell out, building the stakes, what’s most enthralling about DEVIL IN SILVER are the characters. Pepper has nicknames for many of them, like one of the asylum attendants, Scotch Tape, and fellow inmate Sandra Day O’Connor.

My favorite among them is an old woman named Dorrie, who acts as a sort of ambassador whenever a new patient arrives. She has a special understanding of who the devil is, and she’s apt to say things like “I’ve got bras that are older than you.” To Pepper, she looks like Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd, but she can clean herself up to look like Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote.

Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd, top, and Murder, She Wrote, below

Pepper has a special love for the letters of Vincent Van Gogh, who was no stranger to insane asylums. As the novel comes to an end, we see how Van Gogh influences the true meaning behind the entire story. “[Van Gogh] hoped to reflect the world’s own glory, with love. An artistic impulse, but not one exclusive to artists … The aspiration is so rarely rewarded, or even understood, that most people don’t even try. But wherever it’s found, whenever it’s displayed, it’s an act of genius,” LaValle writes.

LaValle paints his people with that love, giving them a touch of nobility at times, and mixing those colors up with large dollops of humor and a touch of crazy. Turns out this kind of horror is definitely my jam, and you can bet I’ll be reading more of his work

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