The Night Inspector

The Night Inspector

4.0 2
by Frederick Busch

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An immensely powerful story, The Night Inspector follows the extraordinary life of William Bartholomew, a maimed veteran of the Civil War, as he returns from the battlefields to New York City, bent on reversing his fortunes. It is there he meets Jessie, a Creole prostitute who engages him in a venture that has its origins in the complexities and despair of the


An immensely powerful story, The Night Inspector follows the extraordinary life of William Bartholomew, a maimed veteran of the Civil War, as he returns from the battlefields to New York City, bent on reversing his fortunes. It is there he meets Jessie, a Creole prostitute who engages him in a venture that has its origins in the complexities and despair of the conflict he has left behind. He also 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.

Delving into the depths of this country's heart and soul, Frederick Busch's stunning novel is a gripping portrait of a nation trying to heal from the ravages of war—and of one man's attempt to recapture a taste for life through the surging currents of his own emotions, ambitions, and shattered conscience.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
It's late in the afternoon, and Frederick Busch is having dinner in a restaurant high atop the stadium where the Florida State Seminoles play football. The sun is low in the sky, glinting off the empty bleachers, shining in the bearish Busch's narrowed eyes. "This is it, I think," Busch slowly says. He is not referring to his half-finished blackened grouper, upon which he continues to feast. "This book did me in. I put everything I had into it. It's dark. It's full of sex and violence, and it scares the hell out of me. You'll see," he says, shrugging. He is scheduled to read from the book in an hour, to what I expect to be a packed auditorium. "I'm not sure I'll ever write another one."

There are four other writers at the table. From us comes a chorus of "aw, c'mon," a yawp of "yeah, right." I have heard Tim O'brien say the same thing after every single one of his books. Four or five years later, you wander into a bookstore and there's a new O'brien.

Busch keeps busy with his grouper. He waves to a waiter to lower the blinds on the window. When his squint is gone, his face is impassive. "I mean it," he says. "I don't think I have anything left." Again he shrugs. "I'm not trying to be self-effacing," he says. "When you hear it, you'll understand."

The book in question is his grandly entertaining The Night Inspector, a novel of post-Civil War New York, told from the point of view of William Bartholomew, once a brutally effective Union sniper whose face has been hideously mutilated and is hidden, most of the time, behind a pasteboard mask. The book featuresnotonly a Creole prostitute who exposes Bartholomew to a fetid underworld of murderers, whores, and the lingering postwar slave trade (a largely untold story) but also the sad husk of a man that is the late-career Herman Melville. Melville is working on the seamy docks as a deputy customs inspector (hence the title), living with the utter failure of his literary career (which, with his books long out of print, he has nearly given up) and the death of his son. A colleague of mine called Busch's book a thinking person's The Phantom of the Opera. I'd call it a thinking person's Cold Mountain, except that it's probably a mistake to describe a book so rich, obsessive, and original in terms of other books.

It does not read like a book written by a spent author.

Busch has published 23 books in the past 28 years and has been, in that time, among the most consistent craftsmen around. In addition to that extravagant output, he's started and abandoned several novels, including a couple "finished" ones that, when he told me about them, sounded pretty good: one, a continuation of the story begun in his paean to the hard, enduring rewards of married love, called Harry and Catherine; another, a football novel he researched for a year, including spending several months inside the New York Giants training camp, which featured as its protagonist a character modeled on Hall of Fame linebacker/loose cannon Lawrence Taylor. I tell Busch both sound like books I'd buy.

He shrugs. "No, you wouldn't," he says. "Because they both stink."

"Oh," I say.

It's stunning to think that both of these novels were finished and shelved this decade, since it's been during that time that Busch has, for my money, gone from good writer to great.

After 1990's Harry and Catherine came 1991's Closing Arguments, a post-Vietnam War novel that also succeeds at being a thinking person's legal thriller. It was a commercial and artistic breakthrough for Busch. His next two novels — Long Way From Home and his bestseller Girls — are both psychological literary fiction of the first rank and page-turners the best crime writers would envy.

If Busch, 58, does hang up his keyboard, it will come at the conclusion of a flurry of activity — four books in the past three years that, collectively, do an admirable job of summarizing what Busch has been about as a writer.

There's Girls, his best-known book, a novel that not only shows Busch to his most entertaining advantage but also had as its origin the short story "Ralph the Duck" — a small masterpiece that, years before it was subsumed into Girls, had become widely anthologized.

Last year came A Dangerous Profession: A Book About the Writing Life. The essays in the book include explorations both of Busch's experience as a writer (all writers, wannabe or otherwise, male or female, should read "The Writer's Wife" and the hilarious "Bad") and of some of the writers Busch (a professor of literature at Colgate University, where's he's been a fixture for a quarter century) both reveres and teaches in his seminars, including Melville, Dickens, and Hemingway. To read Busch's "Hemingway's Sentence" is a good way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Hemingway's birth — and to learn to become a better writer.

Now we have The Night Inspector. It's a mark of Busch's integrity that he didn't follow Girls with something like Girls 2. That said, The Night Inspector is very much a literary thriller. On top of that, it's a companion piece of a sort to his 1978 novel The Mutual Friend, in which Charles Dickens is a character.

Finally, there's the just-published anthology Busch edited, Letters To a Fiction Writer, which features letters from the likes of such consummate writer's writers as Richard Bausch, Ann Beattie, Charles Baxter, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Reynolds Price, Tobias Wolff, and many more. It's a generous, remarkable collection; I can't think of a book with more good advice to writers per page. The book (in which Busch, by way of introduction, writes a magnificent letter of righteous, barely restrained outrage to the editor who, 30 years ago, sent the then-unpublished Busch a snarky rejection letter) is a public display of what Busch has been doing quietly for years: teaching young writers, boosting the careers of young writers, doing what he can for his fellow practitioners in the art of failure.

To wit: As we get to the auditorium for his reading, Busch pulls me aside. I direct a large creative writing program, and Busch whispers to me some tips about writers currently teaching at other universities who might be enticed to come here. Moments before an event devoted to his own work, he's going out of his way to help other writers. All across America, there are writing programs that are better because of advice from Fred Busch, writers who have good jobs because of letters from Fred Busch.

And then he takes the stage.

As he reads the scenes of squalor and sex and liquor and blood, the crowd hangs on every word. In the unlikely event that The Night Inspector is Frederick Busch's final novel, he's going to leave America's readers in the same state he leaves the crowd on this hot spring night in Florida.

Wanting more.

Mark Winegardner, a professor in the creative writing program at Florida State University, is the author of four books, including most recently the novel The Veracruz Blues.

John Crowley
The Night Inspector is a marvelously dark-hued story by a master craftsman, and watching mastery at work provides at least a part of the pleasure of reading it. — The New York Times Book Review
Benjamin Anastas
In the excitement of the author's press junket, barely a soul will notice that Mr. Busch, in breaking his pact with literature to obey the first commandment of the marketplace, has damned his loved and labored-over pages to the cruelest fate of all: providing ceap thrills for an indifferent readership.
New York Observer
Jabari Asim
Clearly Busch sees certain parallels between the craft of fiction and the construction of personalities and "false fronts" that people use to get through the day....Busch is a smart and charming writer who's easy to like, and although his protagonist here isn't especially charismatic, he's complicated enough to hold readers' interest all the way...
Hungry Mind Review
Boston Sunday Globe
Flawlessly plotted and philosophically rich...not a merely effective novel, but an essential one.
Washington Post Book World
Sensual and many-layered.
Library Journal
Busch's darkly imaginative historical novel re-creates 1867 New York City, whose seamy underbelly reflects the physical and psychological scars of the Civil War. Among its citizens are a hideously disfigured veteran and customs inspector M--a famous writer down on his luck--who are drawn into a plot to rescue black children from the slave trade. (LJ 2/15/99) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Out of a rancid stew of vice and misery, Mr. Busch has created a sublimely dark work of almost unbearable beauty. An exploration of evil, hidden identites and the dehumanizing forces of commerce, The Night Inspector has a moral heft and stylistic grace not unlike the work of a certain bearded, brooding, 19th-century customs official.
The Wall Street Journal
Ben Greenman
...[T]he novel is an act of massive imagination, rich with biblical resonance, precise historical re-creation and psychological inquiry.
Time Out New York
Kirkus Reviews
The prolific Busch returns to the genre of historical reconstruction he attempted so successfully in The Mutual Friend (1978), which reimagined the Victorian world of Dickens. This story is set in New York City in 1867, and also in the painfully vivid memories and premonitions experienced by its narrator, Civil War casualty William Bartholomew, a former Northern Army sniper whose destroyed visage is concealed beneath a specially constructed mask. The present action emerges from Bartholomew's relationships with: his old army comrade Samuel Mordechai, an idealistic journalist determined to write the truth about war; "Tackabury's Adam," a freed slave whose condition of actual unfreedom Bartholomew strongly empathizes with; Chun Ho, a widowed laundress herself uneasily assimilated to postbellum America; a beautiful Creole prostitute, Jessie, who authors an ingenious liberationist plot; and a deputy customs-inspector named Herman Melville, whose once promising literary career has stalled. Busch gets a seductive narrative rhythm going almost instantly: Bartholomew's meetings with "M" (whose work he has read), visits to the lavish brothel where Jessie toils, and adventures as an importer-exporter and commercial speculator are juxtaposed against graphic and disturbing flashbacks to wartime ordeals like his assassination of a brave "Rebel whore" and his discovery of a common grave crammed with massacred civilians (both incidents superbly foreshadow more horrors to come). Bartholomew is a brilliantly imagined character, and the book vibrates with beautifully realized (mostly nocturnal) period scenes. A single improbability aside (we're never fully persuaded that this "acid-etchedman of measureless cruelty" would devote himself to combating slavery), Busch offers a gripping story that climaxes unforgettably when a contraband-filled ship reaches port, and concludes with bitter irony when Bartholomew and Mordechai attend Charles Dickens's public reading of his fable of resurrection, A Christmas Carol. Another stunning dramatization of Busch's commanding theme: that the world is a battlefield of chaos and dangers from which the innocent must — and may never — be protected.

From the Publisher
"Compelling . . . A marvelously dark-hued story by a master craftsman."
—The New York Times Book Review

"A SUBLIMELY DARK WORK OF ALMOST UNBEARABLE BEAUTY. An exploration of evil, hidden identities and the dehumanizing forces of commerce, The Night Inspector has a moral heft and stylistic grace not unlike the work of [Herman Melville]."
—The Wall Street Journal

"A STYLISTIC GEM OF A BOOK, FLAWLESSLY PLOTTED AND PHILOSOPHICALLY RICH . . . Busch has followed his remarkable novel, Girls, not with a merely effective novel, but an essential one. . . . Stunning."
—Boston Globe

—Dallas Morning News

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.31(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.05(d)

Read an Excerpt

"No mouth," I told him.

"If I'm to craft a special order for you," he said.

"What is that, a special order?" "Why, this." He held up the sketch. I looked away from it. "The mask, Mr. Bartholomew," he said. "I make arms. I make legs. I've never made a face, sir."

Through the smell of resin and shellac, through the balm of pine shavings, came the odor of his perspiration, and I thought of bivouac, and our stench on the wind. His thick, ragged, graying eyebrows were stippled with sawdust, as was his mustache. One of the knuckles of his broad hand was bloody, and the end of the other hand's long finger had been cut away many years before and had raggedly healed.

"Yes," I said. "Special. I thought at first you meant order of being. Race. A species of man, perhaps. A special order of nature. I cannot abide such speculation. We have collectively demonstrated, and not that many months before, the folly of such thinking."

He smiled at the drawing, but not at me, and he shook his head. "No, sir," he said. "You are enough like the rest of my custom. Only your face is maimed, Mr. Bartholomew. You have your limbs, God forgive us."

"I suggest that I am proof of His unreadiness to do so," I said. We examined his sketch again, and he spoke to me of materials and money. It was to be of pasteboard, he decided, so that my head would not be weighed down. He would build many thin layers, each molded to the one beneath, and would protect them with paint, the better to keep away the deleterious effects of rain and snow. Withal, my head would not be burdened, on account of the lightness of construction. "Like a little craft on the sea," he suggested. I had tosmile. He had, it was clear, to look away.

And in the end, he prevailed, and he shaped me a mouth.

I did hear of several who used a buffalo gun, and at first I thought it a lie. How could you haul such a heavy piece of metal and wood up a tree? Not to mention aim with accuracy, or reload with speed? From a hilltop redoubt: yes. With a tripod under the front of that immense, octagonal barrel. But never in a tree, I thought, and of course I was wrong. It was one of my lessons in this long education I received about and from my native country. Never consider a feat undone if the reward is of a size. We move what we must, whether barrels of meat or kegs of dead flesh, when at the farther end of the transaction there lies a crate of dollars. That is how we fare westward, in spite of reversals, anguish, and death.

That is why some very few of us served with the volunteers of New York as what we called marksmen. Snipers, the men of infantry or horse called us, and, behind our backs, assassins. An Englishman I met said thugs. In the woods around Paynes Corners, where I was born, the hamlet lying two hundred miles and more from Manhattan, a small crossroads and then a church and a fur-trading shop for victuals, I learned my forest craftiness. I could hide, and I could seek. I was a solitary child, and powerful of limb. And I was reckless, and born with great vision, though not, alas, of the interior, spiritual sort. But I saw in the dark if there was a hint of a sliver of moon in the sky. How natural, then, with my youth and young manhood passed in patrolling a trapline and hunting for my meals, that I would make a marksman when called to the War.

It was a Sharps that I carried into the trees. I wore a pannier of sixty rounds, and always a pistol in a holster at my back. The knife I wore at my left side, and I drew with my right. It was good for game, and bad for men, I once told the sergeant who saw me out and up and hunting Rebels.

"Kindly do not boast of the assassinations, Mr. Bartholomew. You fire your weapon, but in this chain of command, you are my weapon. And I think we owe it to the dead to never boast about our work."

"It is the brigadier's wish and your command that I take to the trees and shoot men down."

"Truly said, Mr. Bartholomew. I wonder if I rebuke myself while addressing you." He looked away as he spoke, though I was whole of face, and had smooth enough skin, and all of my nose and lips and jaw. I watched a fly hover at his ear. I thought to seize it, and I could have. He turned, and he read my expression, I suppose, and drew back a pace. "This triumph of ours," he said, "our killing them off, is no pleasure to me. Those are men like us."

"No, Sergeant," I said, "with all respect. They are dead, and we are not, and that's the nature of our transaction."

Smoke from the cooks' wagons blew in on us. He tried not to smile, I think. He said, "As you were, Mr. Bartholomew."

I drew myself taut. He said, "I hope you return safe and well."


"And I wonder how you sleep, bless you."

"Fitfully," I said.

He nodded. He caressed his ginger beard, which did not give him the appearance of age I believe he sought. He covered his lips an instant with his fingers, and I saw his fatigue, and his fear, of course. He was from a village up on the Hudson and had been raised in wealth. He was a powerful leader in battle, and in sum a man of strength. Many months later, when the hunters took me down, I tried to ask him to kill me, but I could not work my jaw. He only wrapped my head in what I later learned was his shirt, and he carried me across his saddle, propped against his breast, to a Southern farrier, who thought to cauterize some of the area of wound.

When I had stopped screaming, I heard the sergeant tell the farrier, "You enjoyed that." I heard him cock his piece, and I waited for him to fire. Someone, I remember thinking, should be shot. Then I remembered that I had already filled the bill.

From the eBook edition.

What People are saying about this

Betsy Burton
A man so wounded by war that he wears a mask to cover the part of his face that isn't there prowls post-Civil-War New York City. His Companion is none other than Herman Melville, fallen into obscurity and now a night inspector on the Hudson. What happens on the river is the stuff of darkest nightmares.
—Betsy Burton, The King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, UT

Meet the Author

Frederick Busch's most recent book, Girls, was a New York Times Notable book for 1997. His short story collection, The Children in the Woods, was a finalist for the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award. He has received the PEN/Malamud Award for achievement in short fiction, the National Jewish Book Award, as well as an award for fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has held Woodrow Wilson, National Endowment for the Arts, James Merrill, and Guggenheim fellowships and has been acting director of the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. The Edgar Fairchild Professor of Literature at Colgate University, he teaches creative writing and fiction and also directs the Living Writers program.

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Night Inspector 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a librarian, I try to read a wide variety of books. I took The Night Inspector home because of its reveiws and the authors many literary nominations. Although I found the first 100 pages or so to be tedious to get through, it was well worth the effort. His characters were so well developed and unusual. I found myself drawn into the masked man's world, until the surprising end which unmasked him to be a man like many other men. The plot and setting were also extremely well developed. A throughly interesting and educational read, recommended for anyone who has an interest in history, the military, or just good literature. I will be sure to read Busch's Girls next.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book to have great insight into the human condition.