The Night Inspector is a great American novel about the country’s dark night of the soul. Prolific novelist and short story writer Frederick Busch – author of more than twenty books since 1971 – evokes the Civil War and its aftermath with startling immediacy. The year is 1867. A disfigured Civil War veteran named William Bartholomew, 32 years old, has made a home for himself along the grimy harbor districts of Manhattan. Bartholomew has found a measure of success as a financial speculator, riding the choppy waves of the market economy. "It was money that won," he tells us, "same as it was money responsible for maiming us."
A painted pasteboard mask hides the scars on his mangled face, much of which was blown off in the war. ("I’m a coin," he says mordantly, "imprinted with Abe’s earnestness.") Sleepless nights are haunted by memories of his gruesome work as a Union sniper. Feared and despised even among fellow northern soldiers, labeled an "assassin," Bartholomew did his killing far from the battlefield, hidden in trees or bushes, taking aim at "unprepared and unresisting men."
As the war dragged on, his missions became increasingly outlandish, ordered by his superiors to gun down a civilian mapmaker, or a prostitute, or a team of horses, any human or animal seen as aiding the Rebel cause. So effective and notorious was Bartholomew’s marksmanship that soon he was himself a marked man, eventually meeting the enemy gunfire that would take off half of his face. The sights and sounds and smells of war are never far from his thoughts:
I carry, behind the ruins of my face, inside my brain, the smell of excrement and pounded, flayed flesh stirred deep into the mud of the streets… It was a time of odors. You could smell the putrefaction of wounds. You could smell the maggots in them, like the bitter, herbal smell of bats. The unbathed men, the starved, exhausted horses and mules, the shallow breathing of a vast despair — you could smell the staggered nation…
The brutal economics of warfare have made a Social Darwinist of Bartholomew: "There are the weak, there are the strong… And what survives is strongest." It is also economics – perhaps mingled with a modicum of compassion – that involves him in an elaborate scheme to free a group of African American children being sold into a clandestine postwar slavery ring in Florida. In truth, he is in love with a Creole whore named Jessie who tells him of the youngsters, some of whom Bartholomew suspects may be Jessie’s own family or offspring.
For Bartholomew’s part, he will attempt to arrange safe passage for the children on a ship bound from Florida and set to arrive in New York harbor. He will also try to enlist the assistance of a customs inspector who has of late become a friend and drinking companion. The customs inspector is none other than 48 year-old Herman Melville, whose minor fame as the author of Typee and Moby Dick is years behind him (his lifetime income from the writing of Moby Dick amounted to $1,260). In 1867 Melville was earning $4 a day working for the U.S. Customs Service, drinking too much, exacerbating the tensions with his wife and children, and writing reams of the poetry that would do nothing to revive his literary career.
Herman Melville was never involved in anything remotely like the adventure that Frederick Busch imagines for him in The Night Inspector. But what Busch creates is a compelling psychological profile that convinces us that the dissipated and exhausted writer just might have had it in himself to engage in the kind of derring-do that climaxes this extraordinary novel, which for all the world reads at times like something from a Melville yarn, with the appropriate Old Testament anguish and complex moral ambiguity.
Above all, Busch gives us the despair of a visionary writer. There was no market in nineteenth century America for Melville’s profound literature. In a very real sense, he was a victim of the same mercantile capitalism that drove the economy toward greater industrialization and greater disparity between rich and poor. "I am my own secret now," says Melville in The Night Inspector. "I am my darkest best-held secret. Do I wish to be? I would prefer not to. Do I choose? I do not."
The Night Inspector is literary art of the highest order, comparable to E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, William Kennedy’s Ironweed, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, all of which give voice to the dark poetry that churns beneath the surface of our violent heritage. Frederick Busch’s ingenious mixing of reafiction and historical fact reaches a bone-chilling pitch when the fictional William Bartholomew sells Herman Melville a Colt pistol for his eighteen year old son, Malcolm, who has joined the New York State National Guard. Malcolm Melville will be found dead in the novel, as he was in history, with a presumed self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
It remains to be seen whether The Night Inspector will bring Frederick Busch the major success he so richly deserves. The novel may be too literary for mainstream tastes. Some familiarity with Melville’s life and times is probably useful for a full appreciation of the novel. (A superb source is Laurie Robertson-Lorant’s 1996 biography, Melville.)
Look for The Night Inspector to be nominated for any number of possible honors in 1999, from the National Book Award to the Pulitzer.
– Bob Wake