BOOK

Asylum Seeker

by Rebecca Shapiro
The Devil in Silver
By Victor LaValle
Spiegel & Grau, 432 pages, $27.00
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LaValle is also the author of a short-story collection and two previous novels, and while the four books differ in scope and circumstance, he writes compassionately in all of them about the underclass, the kind of people that society tends to forget. His protagonists are plagued by schizophrenia, obesity, addiction, and passivity, yet all are big-hearted and warmly drawn.

As Pepper becomes further entrenched in life at New Hyde, other such faces begin to emerge around him. He learns to lean on Dorrie, a self-appointed den mother, and grows accustomed to Coffee, his paranoid Ugandan roommate, who is usually found commandeering the pay phones. Pepper may have more mental faculty than the others, but he is just as lonely and disenfranchised, and the makeshift community that he builds is one bright spot in an otherwise bleak world. But while these developments feel genuine, another major turn in the plot feels forced and causes the novel to lose focus. It soon becomes clear to Pepper that there is evil dwelling in New Hyde — the titular devil, a demonic creature confined to one wing of the hospital who pays residents midnight visits. Everyone at New Hyde seems more focused on exorcising the demon than on their own recovery or release, and soon Pepper, too, becomes obsessed with the creature, seeking answers where none are to be found. And as he does, his sanity finally begins to waver.

The monster, a physical manifestation of the fear prevalent on every page, is unnecessary and distracts from the book’s real darkness. How can this system continue day after day, Pepper finally begs the elusive doctor, with no checks, no consequences, no questioning? How has it gone unnoticed that the system isn’t helping anyone? “The system,” the doctor replies, “is working exactly right for those it was intended for.”

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Comments

The fictional physician's observation in the reviewer's last paragraph concisely sums up the fundamental problem in our US healthcare and education systems. Appealing when read in fiction, but far too disconcerting and ego-dystonic for many, if not most, in non-fiction.

I rarely read fiction these days, but that last line caught me. I have been looking for how to say exactly that point, in a way it can be heard enough to help.

Thank you La Valle and Shapiro!
Cathie M. Currie, PhD GSAS'90

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