Most novelists shouldn’t narrate the audio versions of their work. A professional actor can almost always do a better job, especially when the novel features a lot of dialogue and a variety of characters of different ages and genders. There are exceptions, of course — novelists renowned for their dramatic talents — but not many. With nonfiction, it’s another matter; the best works are already written in an artful approximation of the author’s own voice. Whether it’s Tom Bissell reading his thoughtful ruminations on the art of video games in “Extra Lives,” or Mitchell Zuckoff relating the true story of the World War II servicemen who accidentally provided a New Guinea tribe with their first encounter with the developed world in “Lost in Shangri-La,” the nonfiction author speaks directly to his reader, and hearing the book in his voice makes sense.
I recently found an exception to this (admittedly loose) rule in Victor LaValle’s novel, “The Devil in Silver.” I’d bounced off of LaValle’s two previous books, “The Ecstatic” and “The Big Machine,” a particularly frustrating experience, since his premises, and the ideas implicit in them, are so intriguing. To my internal ear, unfortunately, his style seemed to jangle awkwardly in the gap between slangy vernacular and a more conventional narrative formality, and I’d given up after a chapter or two.
LaValle’s reading voice, however, seamlessly knits together the dual influences of street and branch library. It’s the sound of Queens, albeit a soft rasping version of that swaggeringly percussive, gloriously American accent. Queens, as LaValle explains in “The Devil in Silver,” is the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the world. It’s relatively poor as well, and the wards of New Hyde hospital, a public mental institution and the setting of “The Devil in Silver,” offer just about the level of care you’d expect in a beleaguered urban institution.
The novel’s main character, Pepper, ends up in New Hyde via an improbable series of events, compounded by his own short temper. He’s not mentally ill, and most of his fellow patients are surprisingly compos mentis themselves, which is just as well, given that, by night, their ward is stalked by a demonic, homicidal, buffalo-headed creature. “The Devil in Silver” is part modern madhouse narrative (a genre that includes “Girl, Interrupted” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), part horror story, and if you’re not asking yourself “Is it real, or are they just crazy?” (because the characters are all at least a little bit crazy), the challenge of figuring out where to draw the line between the delusional and the actual is still a big part of the novel’s allure.
Ken Kesey’s famous novel comes in for a bit of criticism here — one of the characters complains that “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is more about the discontents of the counterculture than the lives of “people like us,” society’s discards. For LaValle, New Hyde is emblematic not of the intolerance and authoritarianism of mainstream American culture, but of the fate of the underclass abandoned to the dwindling mercies of a decrepit welfare state. The beast that hunts them might as well be capitalism itself, heartless and ravenous. But they’ve still got some fight in them, and some hope, and that’s why LaValle’s own voice, tough and soulful, feels just right in speaking for them all.
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