Like The Jungle for the public hospital system, Victor LaValle’s The Devil In Silver crusades on behalf of the suffering, but loses them in the bigger picture. The third novel from the Guggenheim Fellowship winner (following The Ecstatic and Big Machine) turns to the supernatural to help expose the mistreatment of patients within a psychiatric hospital, forcing some of them into heroic roles that don’t fit.
The newest patient at New Hyde Hospital in Queens knows his fight with a neighbor’s ex-husband got out of hand—but Pepper, a dropout who picks up occasional work at a moving company, knows he isn’t actually insane. Yet after being held for 72 hours and then drugged past his voluntary release time, Pepper learns that it’s either New Hyde or Rikers until his trial starts, and even a corner-cutting for-profit mental hospital is better than being locked up. Conveniently, Pepper read One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest before he was committed, so he knows what to do: rally his fellow inmates around common threats like the dampening effects of their drugs, the nurses’ tyranny, and reports of a devil-like creature that sneaks around the wards at night. With a little scheming, they’ll be out in no time.
The inmates’ treatment at the hands of New Hyde’s indifferent staff verges on abuse, disproportionate to their behavior and counter to their recovery. Hopes of an outer corrective force fade whenever an inmate’s death is reported as a “no name,” without repercussion. The Devil In Silver’s omniscient narrator lines up these details with an eye toward contrast, but dwells on their specificities to the exclusion of the tension, cutting in as Pepper is being bound hand and foot in his bed to report how long his restraint has gone past the legal limit.
New Hyde’s treatment is brutal, but so is Pepper in his treatment of the cops that landed him there, and in his subsequent rages, which the narrator shrugs off as the natural reaction to such confinement. In the process of excusing Pepper, LaValle burnishes his often-erratic behavior, while almost condescending to his subject for not being smart enough to see the hospital’s systemic flaws. In this stifling place, the creature in Northwest Four preoccupies Pepper above his potential release or legal troubles, and its rare appearances abruptly arrive at a disappointing resolution. Few of his fellow inmates are well developed, except as living lessons for Pepper. The Devil In Silver doesn’t trust him enough as a hook to show his ordeal uninterrupted.