A sane man in a New York City mental hospital lies helpless, strapped hand and foot to his bed, as legs descend through a broken ceiling tile, legs attached to something barely human.
The thoroughly chilling scene comes from Victor LaValle’s third novel, “The Devil in Silver,” a meandering, uneven blend of gothic horror (too little) and institutional malaise (too much).
The sane man, known as Pepper, was meant to be held for 72 hours of observation after he beat up three undercover policemen. Bad judgment and malign bureaucracy turn three days into months of heavily drugged incarceration.
“Pepper immediately flashed back to the only thing he knew about mental institutions: the film version of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”’ It’s been 50 years since Ken Kesey’s novel came out and it remains inimitable.
LaValle isn’t trying to match the classic, though like Kesey’s McMurphy, Pepper finds an abusive staff, a slippery definition of sanity and an unavoidable connection to his fellow inmates. LaValle throws in a devil as well.
Interesting monsters inhabited LaValle’s previous novel, “Big Machine.” They were almost-friendly beasties with a key role in a serpentine plot involving a cultish group under threat from a breakaway member.
The creature who invades Pepper’s room begins as mythic fiend and eventually emerges as a longtime patient of hideous aspect and murderous bent.
He’s mostly offstage, yet present through allusions -- to Frankenstein, “Jaws,” Poe’s raven, Scrooge’s undigested beef, and a doctor’s patronizing reference to inner demons. His few actual appearances are good for a jolt of the macabre.
The novel could have used a lot more jolting. LaValle’s story plods along like an overmedicated patient, with spurts of action that generally lead to nothing. Escape is the inevitable theme, played through several variations.
There are few surprises in LaValle’s jabs at the hospital’s staff and red tape, the profiling of blacks, the computer scam that allows billing for services provided to dead people -- complete with an allusion to Gogol’s “Dead Souls.”
Worse, there are lamentably few delights in his prose. The writing is often flat, rough and unworked. On one page, the word “Then” begins three sentences in five lines. A chummy voice occasionally, pointlessly intrudes on the third-person narration: “Let’s take a moment to be impressed.”
I’m all the more disappointed because LaValle showed a surfeit of talent in “Big Machine,” which won an American Book Award in 2010 and promised greater things still. I hope they lie ahead.
“The Devil in Silver” is published by Spiegel & Grau (412 pages, $27). To order this book in North America, click here.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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