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
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.
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