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The Night Inspector Hardcover – April 20, 1999
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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.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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An accomplished woodsman and eagle eye, Bartholomew served in the war as a marksman, sniper, assassin or thug, depending on the perspective. He was a great hunter of Rebel soldiers until he was brought down by a hideous, disfiguring wound, requiring him to wear a strap-on pasteboard, painted face crafted specially for him. "I'm a coin imprinted with Abe's earnestness." In New York, he stays to the shadows -- masked, despairing of humanity and disillusioned with his country.
America, then as now, gets squeamish when faced with the consequences of the awful things it asks its young men to do.
"Passersby regarded us with curiosity, with disquiet, with sorrow and pity and disgust. Men with pinned or flapping sleeves and men on crutches jerked and wobbled on Broadway. Men with specially fitted masks, with artificial jaws and gleaming ivory temple plates or metal cheekbones, swelled the crowds at Madison Square." Bartholomew's own wound "made me think of pink roasted beef left for weeks in the cupboard and still, somehow, damp."
In a darkened dive run by a fellow veteran, he takes respite from horrified reaction. There he meets Herman Melville, out of critical favor and also given to philosophical brooding. A friendship forms over glasses of wine and slightly suspicious cuts of meat as the men sit and debate human nature, American expansionism and whale metaphors.
Bartholomew also engages in long talks with a Creole whore named Jessie, discussing the (un)ethics of economics -- such as "the last crop of slavery" in Florida, forcibly orphaned children for whom the market no longer exists.
For all his disdain toward upper-class avarice, Bartholomew shows great skill in speculation: "I was an importer-exporter, a student of the markets, and therefore a man who was watchful of human needs. I lamented the deaths at the minehead in Wales, but I celebrated the retrieval of every lump and boulder of coal." As a stockbroker, he's willing to play the leg-breaker, slapping around clients who don't cough up the dough they owe. War, having effectively cauterized his conscience, has made him perfectly suited for Wall Street. "And that is how capital works."
The marketplace is not so kind to his friend Melville. "He had invested his efforts, his construction of language, upon the national markets of England and the United States. His initial offerings were seized upon, his latter efforts were ignored. It was that simple. ... It wasn't fair, perhaps, but it was true. Once famous, he was now unknown, a deputy inspector of Customs with his badge and government notebook and his locks. I wondered if he wrote his private stories in the federal book. I wondered how deep in his soul he accepted the verdict of the marketplace. The waters would roll over him, and he would be forgotten if, already, he wasn't yet; and someone else, who wrote what the public would have -- stories of investment, I thought, and who can tell? -- might be remembered."
Melville works the night shift on the Hudson pier, monitoring the steady stream of river commerce. "One could turn a powerful profit if the night inspector turned his head at the right moment. It was chancy, of course, but a businessman must never close his eyes to chance."
By day, Bartholomew is a fearsome corporate player; by night, he sleeplessly wanders the filth of New York's backstreets, defending the downtrodden and performing acts of charity. (I just made him sound like Batman.) His motives for such behavior remain a mystery, even to himself. "Children, here, were always in tears, and dogs were always howling. It was what gave vent to the general life of the Points -- a voice, if you will, for what the populace could never say." There are clues rattling around in Bartholomew's recollections of war and his childhood, but I'll leave all that for the book clubs to ponder, though Bartholomew says, "You needn't trouble yourself to make sense of me. I prefer, in fact, not to be made sense of."
Whatever his reasons, Bartholomew plies and manipulates Melville in a scheme with Jessie the whore to rescue the children in Florida who remain enslaved, regardless of presidential proclamations and Confederate capitulations. As an object lesson on the abuse and exploitation of children, particularly black children, Bartholomew takes Melville on a tour of the foulest perversions New York's tenderloin has for purchase. Properly shocked, Melville says, "I salute your gallant cause." I had to wonder if author Frederick Busch hadn't labored overmuch to rub his readers' noses in the degradation. Some of his descriptions, rather than invoking righteous outrage, stray dangerously close to tacky voyeurism.
Belaboring the point is a running problem throughout "The Night Inspector." Busch doesn't let many pages go by between mini-lectures on how capitalism renders every human interaction into a transaction in which the rich are rewarded and the poor get pulverized. I very much enjoyed Busch's baroque and stately writing -- a fitting style for a period story about Herman Melville. The preaching? Not so much. Although Busch leaves many issues of character open to reader interpretation (his female characters are particularly sketchy), he bangs the "Capitalism BAD" bongo like Little Johnny One-Note. It seems a copout to blame an inanimate system for societal ills as if it were a rapacious, voracious entity driving mankind, rather than the other way around. Ranting against commerce in itself too easily exculpates humanity, which rarely fails to act the turd, given half an opportunity.
"Also," a fellow reader said of the novel, "you might not have noticed, but it's about the masks people wear." Then we both laughed. Busch is not exactly crafty in his use of metaphor. Perhaps he could have taken a lesson from his literary idol and title character, Herman Melville. Melville's whale is an all-purpose symbol, open to almost infinite reader interpretations (or none at all if you'd rather read "Moby Dick" like a great simple seafaring adventure). Busch appears unwilling to surrender control and leave any of that work to his readers. He's generous in sharing his wonderful talent for storytelling, but he can be as stingy as a robber baron in permitting audience interaction.
This is an exceptional novel--better than any other I've read that seeks in New York City a metaphor for the dark side of economic prosperity (Doctorow's The Waterworks and Caleb Carr's The Alienist come to mind). This novel is for anyone who loves language and doesn't mind working to tease out the story from the rich, time-shifting elements of the narrator's deliberately woven voice. This novel is absolutely masterful. I am in awe of the craftsmanship, the absolute brilliance of its evocation of time, mood, and place. This novel reveals its jewels slowly; do not read it quickly. The "story" is lean; this is a novel of character and mood. But the ending was unexpected and heightened my appreciation of Busch's control of his subject--the concluding ironies (the juxtaposition of Melville's decline against Dickens's triumphant final American tour) echo the main plot in a delicious way.
This is one of the best books of the year, and should appear on every awards short-list (winning a few, I hope).
Busch's protagonist has suffered more than most Civil War veterans. He was a special sniper. He was a very good sniper in a special unit. He was on a mission when he was hit in the face with a bullet. His face was destroyed; he would wear a mask for the rest of his life.
Slowly Busch talks of love and death. He discusses his characters feelings about them. He also brings in a most unexpected character; one almost all Amercans know. Mr. Herman Melville, Asst. Deputy, Customs Inspector. It was his job to stop smuggling and to help people in need.
Melville was an Asst. Deputy Customs Inspector in NYC in real life. He had spent most of his working career doing just that. This condition was such, because all his novels, except "Moby Dick" were commercial failures. In this case, Busch chooses to use "The Confidence Man: His Masquerade" as a metaphor. In that book, Meville seems to be saying, `We all are seeking confidence, either we are seeking self-confidence; the confidence of others; or we are preying on other people's confidence.'
The book is very much about good versus evil and life and death. But they are dealt with in a well conceived framework created through incredibly deep sensitivity. This is a must read book.