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'The Devil in Silver' review: Victor LaValle's Queens crazies

"The Devil in Silver" by Victor LaValle (Spiegel

"The Devil in Silver" by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau, August 2012) Credit: Michael Lionstar

THE DEVIL IN SILVER, by Victor LaValle. Spiegel & Grau, 411 pp., $27

Nobody is his or her own best editor, not even the writer of this review, so you wonder whether Victor LaValle didn't get advice about his third novel, "The Devil in Silver," or simply chose to ignore it. It's sad, really, because what might have been a first-rate thriller about madness, corruption and monsters in a Queens asylum is too glib to get a reader fully committed, no pun intended, although it's a great example of how an author can be undone by his own style.

LaValle recounts the tale of Pepper, a furniture mover who, in the course of defending his would-be girlfriend from her ex-husband, has a run-in with three undercover cops and lands in the New Hyde mental hospital in Queens. There, Pepper meets a rather predictable cross-

section of lunatics, including a long-term female resident who knows the institutional ropes, a delusional African who believes he can access the Internet with his mind, and a teenage girl with anger issues. The facility is a hellhole, the staff is stressed and the inmates are restless. Also, there's some kind of monster living behind the silver door at the end of the ward.

The mix of horror -- both supernatural and bureaucratic -- is handled well by LaValle, who is certainly capable of straightforward action and simple, apt description: Pepper, examining his lunch one day, observes that "the bread looked like drywall and the tuna, grout."

But it's unlikely that Pepper would listen to his roommate banging on a soda can and conclude that it was "the kind of rap-tap-tapping that made Poe flip his lid." Never mind that the comparison is inaccurate, Pepper's frame of artistic references is quite limited, and an allusion to "The Tell-Tale Heart" would probably be a reach. Ditto Pepper's invocation of the Spanish poet Lorca.

"The Devil in Silver" goes off the rails each time LaValle injects himself into the story, or apologizes for one of his character's comments, or apologizes for himself: Pepper at one point comes up with instant nicknames for his fellow patients, calling one Japanese Freddie Mercury and an Indian fellow Yuckmouth. "It might seem to make more sense to nickname the Indian guy Freddie Mercury since Freddie Mercury was an Indian -- birth name Farrokh Bulsara -- but that's kind of racist. Sorry. The Japanese guy actually looked like Freddie Mercury. The Indian guy just had a yuckmouth."

Fascinating -- and the kind of thing that takes the reader right out of the story. And the story in "The Devil in Silver" is pretty good. But the art of storytelling, which LaValle seems intent on avoiding, in- volves drawing readers in, not pushing us away with pretentious observations that only serve to up the page count.

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