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by Victor LaValle

Pub Date: Aug. 21st, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6986-6
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

A diffuse novel reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—but then, what novel set in a mental ward does not remind one of Randle McMurphy and Company?

Pepper is a huge man who gets put in New Hyde Hospital in Queens for assaulting three undercover police officers he’s dubbed Huey, Dewey and Louie. Although he was originally supposed to stay no more than 72 hours, Pepper winds up getting put on a potent collection of psycho-sedative drugs and “wakes up” almost a month later, wondering what he’s doing there. The ward has the usual collection of oddities, misfits and eccentrics, and Pepper fairly quickly adapts to his new situation, perhaps a sign that life outside the walls is close to indistinguishable from life within. One new wrinkle in this relatively predictable scheme of things is that the devil—yes, Satan himself—seems to occasionally run loose at night, wreaking havoc on some of the inmates. Meanwhile, Pepper starts to adjust to life on the inside, attending book-group sessions, where he becomes enamored with the letters of Vincent van Gogh, and experiencing the irrational vagaries of his fellow inmates. He also begins a sexual relationship with Sue (or Xiu), who’s scheduled to be deported to China in a week, so Pepper takes upon himself the task of rescuing her from this fate. Seeing himself as a savior allows Dr. Anand, the head psychiatrist, the luxury of diagnosing Pepper as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder—and you know things have gotten out of hand when a psychiatrist tells a group of inmates, "You are terrible people...Sometimes I want to kill you."

A story whose idea is much more engaging than the reading experience itself.