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The Night Inspector [Hardcover]

Frederick Busch
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 20 1999
A haunting story told with insight and powerful language, The Night Inspector chronicles an unforgettable character who navigates the desperate days and sleepless nights of a gilded yet polluted nineteenth-century New York.
William Bartholomew, a maimed veteran of the Civil War, returns from the battlefields to New York City a hardened man, bent on reversing his fortunes. Much of the lower half of his face was torn apart when he was felled by enemy fire, and he is forced to wear a mask in his postwar life as a New York financial speculator. Despite the solitude of his past life, Bartholomew, once a deadly sniper, now lives among all manner of slum dwellers, thieves, and murderers. As he prowls the city, he becomes involved with Jessie, a Creole prostitute who engages him in a venture that has its origins in the complexities and despair of the Civil War. And he befriends a deputy inspector of customs named Herman Melville--who, largely forgotten as a writer, is condemned to live in the wake of his vanished literary success and in the turmoil of his fractured family.

As with his other works, Frederick Busch leaves us breathless with the mastery of his prose and the power of his storytelling. But never before has he delved the depths of this country's heart and soul as magnificently as he does with The Night Inspector. His depictions of the Civil War are harrowing as we witness the mayhem of battle through a marksman's eyes. It is a gripping portrait--of a nation trying to heal from the ravages of war, of the desolation of a people searching for hope in the burgeoning of a new age, and of one man's attempts at recapturing a taste for life through the surging currents of his own emotions, ambitions, and conscience.

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From Amazon

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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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars How shall I kill thee, let me count the ways. Nov. 4 2003
This lyrically written novel is dark, grim, cruel, bleak and just plain ugly. It's akin to reading poetry about a nuclear waste site or a slaughterhouse -- if that's your cup of tea, you'll love this profusely bloody tome. Busch is adept at describing in graphic detail the many ways that the bullets of an assassin can assail the human head. His protagonist is so hideous a human being that Busch had to disfigure him grotesquely and then involve him in a futile humanitarian gesture for the reader to sympathize with him: neither worked for me -- Billy it utterly and unredemptively odious although he has the olfactory sensibilities of a bloodhound and the night vision of an owl. The female characters struck me as one-dimensional women of easy virtue and the graphic detail of the visit to the Tenderloin was tasteless, pointless and loathesome beyond belief. The only character in the novel worth the read was Melville and the dialogue at the outset seemed as if Busch was too intimidated to be his mouthpiece. Gradually, Melville begins to round out and the suffering of this genius at the lecture by England's greatest hack, Charles Dickens, seemed truly poignant. I loved the beauty of the style of Busch and the vividness of his descriptions but I hope his next work does more than articulate mankind's utterly hopeless condition. It takes little imagination as an author to cast darkness upon life and real talent to shed new light upon it. While I admire the author's creative risk-taking in the plot of this tale, Busch inspects the night with his intellect and then leaves his worthy readers in a state of even greater darkness. Of what real value is this work to those of us seeking a glint of illumination in the great, black, cosmic void?
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5.0 out of 5 stars AT LAST, FINALLY A GENIUS May 15 2002
By Sesho
I am in total awe of this book, and that's a lot coming from a skeptical person like me. I was totally blown away by the grace and artistry of Frederick Busch. I am now going about getting all of his other work.
The Night Inspector is a historical novel in the sense that it is set in 1868 New York. It is above and beyond history in that it portrays psychic wounds more common to our century. Its main character, William Bartholomew, is an ex-sniper for the Union army whose face was destroyed in battle. He wears a pasteboard mask similar to that worn by Tom Cruise in the movie Vanilla Sky. It makes it more disturbing that facial features are painted on its surface, thereby accentuating their very absence. He is a man shattered by war who is desperately trying to rebuild his life by becoming successful in business.
He becomes buddies with Hermann Melville, yes, the once famous author of Moby Dick, who now spends his life as a customs inspector. The scenes with him are very poignant because its painful to see one of our great writers relegated to being a beaten down bureaucrat. You can sense that Melville just wants to leave his family, that he wants to destroy the fake simulation of life that he exists in...
The beauty of the book lies not in its plot but in the beauty of its emotion. I could really see in my mind everything as it happened. That doesn't happen to me very often. The book also takes up the issue of civil rights and the horrors that were committed against blacks in that age. Some of the degradations in the book will fill you with disgust. Also very effective are the scenes in which Batholomew flashbacks to sniper missions. There is something very disturbing in a man that kills for a living and that can totally dismiss mercy from his mind. They are done in such a way that you feel you are there.
The language is great and the writing is impeccable. I felt like I was in the company of a master. Busch is a good writer. Please check him out.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Premise...Deserves a Second Look April 3 2002
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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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful, brilliant work
It has been over a month since I finished Night Inspector, yet it continues to resonate with me, and I think about the main character, Billy, often. Read more
Published on Oct. 23 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars Exquisite...
Billy Bartholomew served as a sniper in the Union Army during the Civil War. He survived a minnie ball to the face, but after the war, has trouble dealing with his disfigurement... Read more
Published on March 28 2003 by Susan E. Neill
1.0 out of 5 stars The unexpected from the Inspector
As a fan of this writer, I enjoyed THE GIRLS and CLOSING ARGUMENTS and found his writing compassionate and above average. Read more
Published on May 27 2001 by Luan Gaines
5.0 out of 5 stars A true gem
I bought the Night Inspector based on a writer's recommendation. My expectations were raised, but I wasn't prepared for how great this novel is. Read more
Published on Jan. 4 2001 by Thomas M. Faust
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful
From historical, psychological. and literary points of view this book is wonderful. It was one of the best novels I have read in the past year. Read more
Published on Dec 10 2000
1.0 out of 5 stars How do I hate thee -- let me count the ways.
I have never read any of Busch's other works and, despite having heard good things about some of them, I never will read them after having forced myself to finish The Night... Read more
Published on Dec 8 2000 by Lori Lofano
5.0 out of 5 stars A Mevillean Delight
As a reader whose favorite work is Moby-Dick and whose favorite author is Melville, I get nervous and prone to defensiveness whenever Melville is re-imagined. Read more
Published on Nov. 26 2000
5.0 out of 5 stars Night Inspector both haunting and lyrical
Frederick Busch has given us a heady mixture of emotion, narrative and history in The Night Inspector. Read more
Published on July 5 2000 by will thomas
5.0 out of 5 stars Well-researched and written
There is something about the language in this book which caused me to enjoy it greatly. There doesn't appear to be much of a plot at the beginning, but once the action takes hold... Read more
Published on June 27 2000 by Frank J. Konopka
2.0 out of 5 stars Tepid tea from the Gilded Age
Parts of this book are marvelous. It's the other parts that make the book trite, poorly handled and downright boring. Read more
Published on May 23 2000 by "scribo"
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