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The Night Inspector (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Paperback – May 2, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

In his fiction, at least, Frederick Busch is no stranger to the Victorian era: his 1978 novel The Mutual Friend was a meticulous reconstruction of the Dickensian universe, right down to the last wisp of pea-soup fog. In The Night Inspector, he ventures an equally deep immersion in the past. This time, however, Busch takes us to post-Civil-War Manhattan, where a disfigured veteran named William Bartholomew rages against the Gilded Age--even as he demands remuneration for his own losses.

And what exactly has the narrator lost? As we learn in a sequence of flashbacks, Bartholomew served as a Union sniper, picking off stray Confederate soldiers in an extended bout of psychological warfare. Eventually, though, he received a taste of his own medicine, when a enemy bullet destroyed most of his face. Outfitted with an eerie papier-mâché mask, Bartholomew tends to shock postwar observers into silence:

I imagine I understand their reaction: the bright white mask, its profound deadness, the living eyes beneath--within--the holes, the sketched brows and gashed mouth, airholes embellished, a painting of a nose.... Nevertheless. I won this on your behalf, I am tempted to cry, or pretend to. The specie of the nation, the coin of the realm, our dyspeptic economy, the glister and gauge of American gold: I was hired to wear it!
Bartholomew has, it should be obvious, a formidable mastery of rhetoric. It's appropriate, then, that he should hook up with that supreme exponent of the American baroque, Herman Melville--who at this point is a burnt-out customs inspector (and candidate for some Victorian 12-step plan). Together these outcasts embark upon a plan to rescue a group of black children from their Florida servitude. This caper--along with Bartholomew's attachment to a gold-hearted, elaborately tattooed prostitute--allows the novel to veer in the direction of the penny dreadful. Yet Busch's mastery of period detail, and of the very shape of century-old syntax, remains extraordinary on every page. And true to its title, The Night Inspector is a superb investigation of darkness--in both the physical and psychological sense. "I was reckless," the narrator insists, "and born with great vision though not, alas, of the interior, spiritual sort." By the end of the novel, most readers will decide that he's undersold himself. --Bob Brandeis --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Sweeping pathos, historical knowledge, philosophical density and gruesome violence make Busch's 19th work of fiction both profound and a page-turner. Busch's articulate narrator, William Bartholomew, served as a Union sniper in the Civil War until an explosion maimed his face; now it's 1867, and Bartholomew works as an investor in New York City, hiding his scars behind a pasteboard mask. The Civil War may be over, but slavery isn't: slave children are stuck at a Florida school, and Jessie, a Creole prostitute romantically involved with Bartholomew, entangles him in a plot to bring them North to freedom. Bartholomew seeks help from Herman Melville, once a bestselling novelist, now a customs inspector (the "night inspector") in Manhattan's shipyards. Rapacious journalist Samuel Mordecai tags along, hoping for scoops on the demimonde of the docks. After struggles with corrupt bureaucrats and money-hungry merchants, Bartholomew's mission collapses in a grisly climax. Flashbacks intersperse the 1867 plot with Bartholomew's horrific wartime experience. Busch's rich work can be savored simply as historical suspense, or as a detailed picture of Civil War combat and post-Civil War New YorkAfans of The Alienist should like it. So should fans of Billy Budd as Bartholomew and Melville himself (called "M") enliven and deepen the novel with allusion and argument: "Do I seek a stay against oblivion on behalf of my little actors on the vast page? Or do I seek my own eternal life?" Bartholomew is a strange mix of self-hatred, honor, vulnerability and violence, Melville a morbid, self-declared defeatist. People back then used longer, slower sentences, and so do Busch's characters: learning to hear them is part of a reader's reward. Buttressed by Bartholomew's backstory and all the characters' thoughts, The Night Inspector becomes a serious, nuanced meditation on history, redemption, commerce, conscience and literary vocation, as well as a gripping read. Author tour.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Ballantine Reader's Circle
  • Paperback: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; 1st Trade Paperback Ed edition (May 2, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0449006158
  • ISBN-13: 978-0449006153
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #979,785 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A. Ross HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on October 7, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I fully expected to enjoy this gritty suspense set in the same gilded age NYC of E.L. Doctrow's The Waterworks. For whatever reason though, I found it rather tedious and affected at times. The story follows a former Union army sharpshooter, who must always wear a mask to conceal his wartime disfigurement. This is presumably a metaphor for the city itself--as Busch manages to put tidbits of its historical sordidness, such as child prostitutes, on display for the reader. There are a lot of flashbacks, telling the background of this man, and of his wartime exploits, where he is used as any other tool. These struck me as much better written and interesting than the bulk of the book, which revolves around the man's attempt to liberate some child slaves with the aid of Herman Melville and various other cultivated allies. The characterizations are quite good, as is the period detail, but the story itself never quite gelled for me.
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24 of 31 people found the following review helpful By "kevarama" on August 23, 1999
Format: Hardcover
The only other Frederick Busch book I own is "Girls" and I can't recommend it highly enough. That's why "The Night Inspector" gauls me so much and has prompted me to write. This book is a HUGE letdown, a clumsy read, and about as engaging as a trip to the dentist's office. Before anyone writes "Well, you should compare apples to apples" or anything when comparing "Girls" with this book, there are quite a few similarities between this book and "Girls." (A haunted narrator with a violent past trying to save the innocents of the world.)
Yes, Busch's descriptions of exploding heads are quite clever but not jaw-dropping, not tension-packed, nor anything much except, well, dull. I did not care one smidge for the narrator not on his terms, my terms or Busch's terms. I thought the mask was silly (yes, sure, people wear masks) but this is a mask worn by a character in a book, OK? It's heavy-handed, it's old, it's clunky, it's a Big Fat Overdone Symbol like a dove or a rainbow. (You know, check me if I'm wrong, but he's saying that people wear metaphorical masks, right? Whoa, man, heavy....) On the heels of reading "Girls" this story felt programmatic, calculating and a rehash of his previous book in several ways only without the wife, the dog, the wonderful nature descriptions and the slowly building sense of doom. He's taken away those wonderful, subtle things and plugged in a Civil War hero (to catch that post-"Cold Mountain" craze) and a Brush With A Celebrity (in this case Herman Melville to tie into the celebrity fiction craze--see "I Was Amelia Earhart" and "Underworld" and "Dewey vs. Truman" and "The Hours" to name but a few.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By will thomas on July 5, 2000
Format: Paperback
Frederick Busch has given us a heady mixture of emotion, narrative and history in The Night Inspector. This is a powerful novel, a gripping tale of a hero who is damaged emotionally as well as physically. William Bartholomew is a civil war sniper whom fate has punished with a hideous face wound, forever hidden behind a papier-mache mask. The title character of the book is the then for gotten author, Herman Melville- Bartholomew's new friend- who lives a twilight existence as a customs inspector. Melville and the Phantom-like wander a bleak Victorian New York City, drinking heavily and visiting sights of depravity in the old city. Interspersed with the narrative, the masked protagonist's mind keeps wandering back to his days in the war, and the grisly but efficient assassinations he made on behalf of the Union side with his Sharps rifle, prior to his disfigurement. This is a fascinating adventure, written by an excellent storteller. Atmospheric, moody,violent, and sometimes bawdy, this is a novel well worth a few night's reading.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Deacon Brodie on April 3, 2002
Format: Paperback
The narrator and main character of "The Night Inspector" is Mr. Bartholomew, a former sniper for the Union army during the civil war. He now has no face --- at least not one he wishes to reveal to the public--- and he wears a mask (or prosthetic face) to hide his disfigurement. In the early scenes of the novel, Bartholomew befriends a once well-received literary figure who is now employed in the titled position. This is none other than Herman Melville, who it is noted in the novel, lost his good literary reputation during his lifetime for the very work which continues to immortalize him --- Moby Dick.
Those of you who are familiar with Busch, most particularly his 1997 "Girls", will recognize that he is reworking many of his previous themes, as many authors tend to do. Busch again deals with a narrator with a past which he blames himself for, and seeks redemption for, and for which he (similarly) finds little. We've got the recurring theme of parental loss of a child, which Busch has dealt with several times.
As in Girls, we've got a narrator who we as readers will find that we have uncomfortably mixed emotions about. Bartholomew is a character who we would like to like (love, even), yet the fact that his past haunts him...haunts us. The book switches between post-civil war New York and Bartholomew's own experiences as a calculating, cold-blooded sniper. The war scenes are the strongest in the novel, while the post-war scenes sometimes seem to have loose ends.
Overall, this book is, like "Girls," exquisitely written, soulful, and resonates (with this reader at least) long after the last page has been turned. Busch's characterization and dialogue is some of the best I've read.
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