Victor LaValle wants you to know that New Hyde Hospital, where The Devil in Silver (Spiegel & Grau, Aug. 21) takes place, is decidedly not the hospital in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “Here’s what you have to understand about that book,” one patient says, rejecting it for her reading group. “As good as it is, it isn’t about mentally ill people. It takes place in a mental hospital, yes. But that book is about the way a certain young generation felt that society was designed to destroy them. Make them into thoughtless parts of a machine. To lobotomize them. That book is about them, not about people like us.”
So Devil is no allegory. It’s a book about a basically decent guy named Pepper with some anger issues who gets involuntarily committed and then sees the devil in the form of an old man with the head of a bison, yes. But it’s no allegory.
Actually, it’s a lot closer to the book that the patients choose over Cuckoo’s Nest — Peter Benchley’s Jaws, which Pepper realizes is about marriage while also being about a giant shark. Devil wants it both ways, too: horror and comedy, monster story and passionate treatise on health care.
But horror is the foundation, and LaValle has earnestly incorporated its anxiety and incomprehension into his story. This is almost the opposite of something like Glen Duncan’s flashier Talulla Rising (Knopf, June 26), a trash-genre novel written by someone who made his reputation with politely received literary novels. As the second in a series following sexy, impulsive werewolves as they struggle to avoid extinction at the hands of icky, cold-fish vampires, Talulla should by rights be enjoyable, if not edifying. But it becomes clear pretty quickly that horror is just instrumental. Simultaneously embracing and holding himself apart from genre clichés, Duncan even copies the bad habits — ham-handed portentousness, constant repetition — that go along with them, making Talulla seem less like a fan’s notes than a mildly condescending pastiche.
And that’s a shame, because pastiche can be useful, and artful, and an awful lot of fun. Ariel S. Winter’s The Twenty-Year Death (Hard Case Crime, Aug. 7) is ambitious and earnest about noir, which can be just as hidebound as horror. Death strings together three independent but connected novels, each one adopting the style of a master — Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson. The first novel, “Malniveau Prison,” is the strongest, likely because Simenon’s strengths in clarity and plotting transplant most easily. But even when he’s channeling Chandler — the most dangerous of the three because of his style, easier to mimic than to use well — Winter is restrained enough to capture not just distinctive style but subject and character. His performance, in fact, is good enough to make you wish he had been able to do just a little more, mining the differences among his models to pull the three stories tighter.
LaValle is no less earnest about horror than Winter is about noir. But where Death’s high concept makes for tight focus, Devil is kind of a mess, inconsistent in tone and polish. LaValle’s writing is often excellent, picking out details like the two patients wearing sport coats over pajamas “who cultivate their dignity long after anyone’s checking for it.” Just as often, he undermines something he should let alone, sabotaging a moment because he can’t pass up a joke. But when the monster shows up at the end, the reality of Pepper’s situation becomes perfectly clear. And rather than the work of the devil, it’s all the routine insults of bureaucracy — Pepper’s 72-hour evaluation period that stretches to indefinite committal, the mortgage-foreclosure software repurposed for patient management, the underfunding and corner-cutting — that are the horrifying norm, making him the victim of a system working precisely the way it’s designed.