Pepper got into a fight at the wrong time. The police officers who broke up the fight were near the end of their shift, and it was too much trouble to fill out the paperwork needed to arrest the big man, so they took him for a 72-hour stint in the mental ward instead. When Pepper fails to cooperate with the staff, the 72 hours turn into weeks and then months. He’s given drugs he (probably) doesn’t need, is restrained for days, has no one to call for help, and doesn’t get anything that looks like a proper evaluation. On top of all that, the Devil is one of the patients. Locked in a separate ward, this monster with a body of a man and a head of a buffalo, bursts violently into patients’ rooms at night. Pepper is determined to stop it.
This novel by Victor Lavalle starts off with a bang. Pepper’s situation is serious, even without a monster, and every move he makes to get out just makes things worse. The system is designed to keep people (and monsters) in, and the system is working. Even the staff who want to be helpful don’t have much choice. They don’t receive enough pay to stick around, the equipment they’re given is substandard, and the patients are unstable enough to keep the staff hardened for their own safety.
But Pepper finds help in a team of fellow patients. There’s Dorry, the elderly woman who makes a point of welcoming everyone and showing them around. Loochie, a teenage girl, is tougher than she looks. And Coffee, Pepper’s roommate, claims to have the contacts to break the whole thing wide open. But the system works to keep the team from ever making any serious headway.
After a while, the book turns, as Pepper befriends a Chinese woman he calls Sue. Their romance is a sweet and joyful respite, but deportation and the Devil lurk in the background, and finally Pepper has to confront the lurking monster.
Reading this immediately after White Tears was an interesting experience because it suffers from the opposite problem. It starts off as a horror novel and turns toward realism. Both parts of the book are successful, for the most part, but the Devil drops into the background for too long at times. I wondered if it could have been excised from the plot entirely or minimized much earlier, perhaps presented as a rumor rather than reality.
Despite that, I enjoyed the characters in this book, and I appreciated Lavalle’s interest in shining a light on how institutions sometimes don’t operate for the best interests of those they’re supposed to serve. The patients in this hospital are a source of funds. Helping them learn to live on the outside means losing those funds. Regulations are an inconvenience, followed only when authorities are watching. And if there’s a cheap and easy way to get something done, that’s the thing to do. All of that is where the novel’s horror is. It’s not the Devil that’s the problem.