Victor LaValle’s third novel is a rambunctious mash-up of horror fiction and social satire. He embeds a sophisticated critique of contemporary America’s inhumane treatment of madness in a fast-paced story that is by turns horrifying, suspenseful, and comic in a noirish way. This should be no surprise for readers of LaValle’s earlier work — his streetwise collection “Slapboxing with Jesus,” his first novel, “The Ecstatic,” about a 315 pound schizophrenic who refers to himself as “a girthy goon suffering bouts of dementia,” and his second, “Big Machine,” whose title is best explained by LaValle’s line, “Doubt is the big machine . . . [that] grinds up the delusions of men and women.” It features a bus station porter in Utica, N.Y., who is summoned to Vermont to join the mission of a ragtag group who have heard ‘‘The Voice.”
LaValle opens with a whopper of a premise. Pepper, a 6-foot-3, 270-pound Queens moving man with bad impulse control, gets into a brawl with three undercover cops. The officers orchestrate a 72-hour hold in New Hyde Hospital’s psych ward rather than take him back to the precinct (with the NYPD’s no-overtime policy, it’s faster that way).
Beginning with the first — Will Pepper ever get out of New Hyde? — LaValle propels his novel with one cliffhanger after another.
Can Pepper bash open a window like Big Chief did in the film version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?” (LaValle’s first wink at Ken Kesey). No such luck. New Hyde’s windows are unbreakable.
Can he figure out a way to keep compulsory daily meds — massive doses of Haldol and lithium plus a Vicodin nightcap — from wiping out his mental functioning in time to figure out a defense?
Even medicated, Pepper’s hair-trigger temper, which never earned him more than an overnight lock-up, digs him deeper into trouble as each day ticks by. This, even though one orderly tells him he’s clearly not crazy, but if he keeps acting stupid he’ll be there longer than three days.
Four weeks in, having earned an “involuntary admit” and several days in restraints for his defiant acts, Pepper wakes in the night to find a terrifying creature breathing in his ear. It’s the monster other patients call the Devil. He has an old man’s frail body and a massive bison’s head with razor-sharp horns. The Devil rips off Pepper’s restraints and stomps on him, cracking his ribs.
The Devil is killing off patients one by one, Pepper learns, and the staff protects it, keeping the monster in a private wing behind a silver door. Will the Devil get Pepper?
LaValle equips Pepper with a group of cohorts with a cynical and knowing secret language. There’s Dorry, a patient since the 1950s who is more violent than her benign manner implies; Loochie, a fearless teenager with a propensity for cutting herself, and Coffee, a Ugandan who overstayed his work visa and ended up in New Hyde. He spends most waking hours at the two payphones in a quixotic quest for help from an authority figure at any level — up to the Big Boss (President Obama).
This small conspiracy of four goes after the Devil. Bedlam ensues.
LaValle creates an effective mix of creepy effects, documentary moments (one narrative thread involves the nameless mental patients who die as the result of institutional neglect or worse), and high-speed action. There are some overindulgences — Pepper, a hard-core Metallica fan, develops an unlikely attachment to Vincent Van Gogh. He also seems overly sentimental in his love affair with Xiu, who is trapped in “immigration limbo” and about to be deported to China. But LaValle mostly keeps on track as he makes an eloquent case for his hapless characters, including the overworked, underfunded staff who have learned to be blind to their violations. All of them are caught up in a system that is working because it doesn’t work, ruled by a power that de Toqueville once warned “covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules” that strangle freedom. “Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”
And what is the devil in silver? That’s shorthand for the delusions that afflicted miners exposed to silver fumes in the late 19th century, Loochie’s smart-aleck brother Louis explains during visiting hours one day. Some of them died, he said, “but it wasn’t a monster that was killing them, it was the mine.”
LaValle’s vision of hell continues to expand as Dorry, in despair after a series of ruthless acts, speculates about how close life in New Hyde is to the outside. “Maybe this is the world. . . . If you think about it, what’s so different? . . . Maybe out there is a lot like in here. The United States of New Hyde. . . . One big asylum.”Jane Ciabattari, who has contributed to the New York Times Book Review, NPR.org, The Daily Beast, and others, and is a former president of the National Book Critics Circle, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.