The Night Inspector

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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 post-war 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 ...
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Night Inspector

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Overview

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 post-war 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.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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.
Washington Post Book World
Sensual and many-layered.
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
Connors
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

"THIS HAUNTING AND INTENSE NARRATIVE'S WRITING EXPLODES ON EACH PAGE WITH PRECISE FEROCITY."
--Dallas Morning News

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780609602355
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/20/1999
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.31 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 1.05 (d)

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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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."

"Sergeant."

"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.

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Foreword

1. Of all American authors, Herman Melville is perhaps most closely associated with the phrase "The Great American Novel." What do you know about Melville and his work? About the book for which he is most celebrated, Moby-Dick? How does this knowledge affect your understanding of Busch's novel?

2. On a similar note, what do you know of Busch's work, particularly his most recent novels? What themes and motifs do you see present here that build upon his earlier work? What departures do you detect?

3. The Melville we meet in this novel is a man disgraced and ruined—abandoned by his publishers, forgotten by his readers, consigned to a grim job as an inspector of cargoes in the Port of New York. His career is all but over and ironically, the source of his misery is the commercial failure of Moby-Dick—the very novel for which he is now most remembered. Why do you think Busch has chosen this inglorious phase in the author's life as his focus? And what do you make of the use of the letter M in place of Melville's name?

4. The novel's narrator, William Bartholomew, is a Civil War sniper-a trained assassin, skillful at his job. What is your impression of him? Is he a cold-blooded killer? Despite this background, do you find him to be a sympathetic character? Why do you think Busch has chosen him to tell the tale?

5. Bartholomew knows Melville by reputation and early in the novel arranges a chance meeting over dinner. Initially, Bartholomew's intentions in seeking out the novelist are less than noble: "One could turn a powerful profit if the night inspector turned his head at the right moment," he says. "It waschancy, of course, but a businessman must never close his eyes to chance." But their connection soon grows deeper. What is the nature of this affinity? What bout Melville seems to be attractive or intriguing to Bartholomew, and vice-versa?

6. Since the war, Bartholomew has remade himself as a financier, "a student of the markets, and therefore a manÉwatchful of human needs." How does this role complement his character and background? In what other ways does his postwar life seem linked to this past? Bartholomew is also a literary man, educated at Yale. What purpose does this serve in the tale?

7. Later in the novel we learn about the first man Bartholomew ever killed—his uncle and stand-in stepfather, who he drowns in the effluent of an outhouse. Why do you think Busch includes this scene in the novel. With its particularly gruesome form of death and killing?

8. The novel begins with Bartholomew's mask. At other times in the novel, he wears a veil. How do masks and concealment function as a theme in the novel? What other forms of concealment or masquerading do you find? Are there moments when these masks are lifted? Bartholomew's veil could also be understood as a garment of mourning. What is being mourned—by Bartholomew, by Melville, by the novel?

9. The scenes in the novel that describe Bartholomew's experiences in the Civil War paint a grim picture of that conflict. How does Busch's portrayal of life-at-arms differ from your expectations, and from other accounts of the Civil War that you have read or experienced?

10. One of the most poignant and horrifying moments in the novel occurs when Bartholomew and his fellow soldiers come upon a massacre: a shed full of men, women, and children—whole families—cut down in haste by advancing Union soldiers. Why does Busch include this scene, especially the image of the tiny doll's head? How does this scene prepare us for later events in the novel?

11. What do you understand Melville's son Malcolm's role in the novel to be? What do you make of his desire to be a soldier? How does his suicide advance the story and its themes?

12. The weapon that Malcolm uses to kill himself is the Colt revolver provided by Bartholomew at his father's request. Does this implicate Bartholomew in his suicide? Does it implicate Melville, who arranged for the gun?

13. The children of Chun Ho call Bartholomew gui meaning "ghost." How is this reflective of a larger truth? In what ways is The Night Inspector a ghost story? A detective story? A war story? A family story?

14. Throughout the novel, Bartholomew maintains that he Civil War is a purely economic conflict, a practical contest between two competing economic cultures, guided by no overarching moral purpose. He tells his friend Sam Mordecai, "It's about moneyÉAgrarians need slave labor. Industrialists need cheap labor. If we make the slaves free of Rebels, then the North will use your Negroes in any way they can. We're fighting for the opportunity for men of business, manufacturers, to get their hands on black men, Jews, and broad shouldered girls. It's money, Sam, they're waging the War about." What do you make of his interpretation? Is it cynical, or realistic? What motivates his understanding, and does it seem entirely sincere? How does it square with your own?

15. The main characters of the novel are all outsiders—men and women who in one way or another exist on the margins of society: a forgotten artist, a Creole prostitute, a widowed Chinese laundress, a Negro day-laborer, a Jewish journalist, a faceless war veteran. What do you make of this commonality, and what is your assessment of Busch's intentions in assembling this band?

16. Bartholomew arranges for a tour of New York's Tenderloin District for Mordecai, a "voyage into darkest New York." Melville joins them on this trip, as does the Negro Adam, who Melville describes as "our dusky Virgil," a reference to Dante's Divine Comedy, in which the Roman poet Virgil plays the role of Dante's tour guide to an imagined underworld. What seem to be Bartholomew's intentions in staging this grim outing? Does he want to educate Mordecai, and , if so, what does he want him to see and learn? Is the trip a success?

17. When their outing concludes, Adam refuses payment and professes regret at his role as guide. He tells Bartholomew, "I showed you a look at bad behavior and sorrow. Like it was minstrels kicking and strumming just for you." What do you make of this moment, and especially of Adam's pain? Do you believe that Bartholomew has taken unfair advantage of Adam's debt to him? In what larger sense does Adam act as a kind of guide—morally, spiritually—for the novel?

18. Many of Busch's novels deal with the subject of endangered or lost children, and certainly this is true of The Night Inspector. Driving the story forward is the plan to rescue a shipload of black children, a scheme that brings all the major characters together at the tale's climax. How does this plot crystallize the novel and its concerns? Is it an effective engine for the tale? What does it show about Bartholomew?

19. Throughout the novel, Busch brings to bear the sense of smell—the stench of war and earth, of animal waste and effluent, of the filthy New York streets and the sewers snaking beneath them. What do you think of this strategy? Is it effective? In what other ways has Busch worked to create a sense of the past, and of 1860s New York?

20. From her early appearance as a minor character, the widowed laundress Chun Ho gradually assumes a greater importance to the novel, culminating in the scene in chapter six in which she makes love to the maskless Bartholomew in his bath. Did this turn of events surprise you? What do you make of their blossoming affinity for one another? What is Chun Ho asking at the end of the chapter when she says to Bartholomew, "Tell me—teach me—you"?

21. The plan to rescue the cargo of black children is ultimately mistaken and thwarted and culminates in a vision of abject horror: a boatload of children drugged and stuffed into barrels to die. How did you react to this scent? Why do you think the writer chose to avoid anything like a "happy ending"?

22. In the chase on the Hudson that follows, Bartholomew is called upon once again to employ his skills as a marksman. Does this occasion differ from those in the past?

23. What do you make of Jessie's role as the Judas figure in the plot? Is her death deserved? After her body is recovered from the river, Bartholomew tells Adam, "At the endÉI think she must have thought of the children. "Why do you think he says this? Does this seem true to you, or is it naïve?

24. The novel provides us with a pair of epilogues: A public reading of A Christmas Carol by the English novelist Charles Dickens, and a brief glimpse of Bartholomew with Chun Ho, walking together on the New York City streets. What does each scene accomplish? Taken together, do they bring about an effective sense of closure to the tale?

25. Does the meaning of the novel's title evolve for you over the course of reading the book? Who or what is a "night inspector"?

Read More Show Less

Interviews & Essays

On Tuesday, May 18th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Frederick Busch to discuss THE NIGHT INSPECTOR.

Moderator: Welcome, Frederick Busch! Thank you for taking the time to join us online this evening. How are you doing tonight?

Frederick Busch: Hi -- delighted to be here, and ready to, um, chat...


Scott from NYC: I know you have taught seminars on Dickens, Melville, and Hemingway -- and now that you have written novels about Dickens and Melville, the next question is, will you write one about Hemingway? I'd think he'd make an amazing character...

Frederick Busch: I love to read Hemingway, and I love to talk about him with my students, but I think that if I even tried to stick him in a novel or base a novel on him, his fiery spirit would rise to smite me! Papa is too much fella for me to appropriate with a fiction. I have, though, written about him -- in an essay in A DANGEROUS PROFESSION and in a forthcoming essay that will appear in the Times Book Review this summer. Good question, and thanks.


Pac87@aol.com from xx: I just want to tell you how much I enjoyed THE NIGHT INSPECTOR. I particularly enjoyed the vivid description of New York City. How did you come up with such powerful images of post-Civil War NYC? Did you have many photographs to assist with your visual mental pictures?

Frederick Busch: I'm so pleased that you like THE NIGHT INSPECTOR. I loved writing about old New York. I looked at a lot of newspapers of the period, and at Harper's Weekly, and, as you guessed, at hundreds of maps, photographs, and even charts -- of the Hudson River -- before I began to address the novel itself. I even walked along the streets in Manhattan where Melville would have walked with Billy Bartholomew. I found the actual badge and notebook he carried when he was a deputy inspector of customs!


Hannah from Oak Park, IL: No matter what each book or story is "about," your work often returns to parents and "lost children" and family; I'm thinking especially of GIRLS, and the slave children in THE NIGHT INSPECTOR. What drives you to focus on these themes? How much of it is from experience?

Frederick Busch: Thank you for reading my work so carefully. Yes, lost children, or strayed children, or desired children do seem to populate and animate my novels and stories.... We are parents and teachers; and that means that you end up loving young people about whom, because you're an adult of the species, you worry a lot. I'm a Russian Jew, and we worry about everything a lot, so maybe it gets multiplied in my fiction. But I do think that all of us ought to be worried about all our kids, because it's a tough world for them.


Naomi from Bennington, VT: I loved your novel about Dickens, THE MUTUAL FRIEND, and am eager to read THE NIGHT INSPECTOR. I think it's so interesting how you choose to include the lives of authors of fiction in works of fiction, rather than in biographies. Have you ever considered writing biographies of Dickens or Melville? What makes you choose to write their lives in fiction?

Frederick Busch: Naomi, the reason I don't write biographies is that you have to pay homage to the facts when you write a biography; when you write fiction, you can start with the facts, and then twist them in your twisted authorial mind until they obey your emotions, intuitions, and imaginings. In a biography, the subject controls you; in [fiction], you control...everything.


Tom from Vista, CA: I have read many of your short stories but have yet to read one of your novels. How different is the writing process for you in writing a short story compared to writing a novel?

Frederick Busch: Tom, you're breaking my heart! You gotta read one of my novels! But on to the answer: Think of a story as a kind of animated snapshot -- you arrest a moment in time, and you preserve it from being eroded by time. Think of a novel as a long examination of how time pours through a group of characters and makes them its own. Come back at me with another question if that isn't clear.


Greg from California: When you write about a character like William, how do you get into the head of a sharpshooting assassin? Did you have nightmares while writing this book?

Frederick Busch: I had nightmares after I wrote the book, Greg. I was kind of astonished and even frightened that I had that dark, cruel action in my brain to tap for the pages of the novel. I knew that my character had been a sharpshooter, but I didn't know, until I was really in the midst of the writing, that I would write -- or could write -- those battle scenes.


Dennis from Ft. Collins, CO: I really enjoyed GIRLS. One of the things I enjoy the most in Fred Busch novels is the vast array of interesting characters. What to Fred Busch is the most important element of good fiction? Would you say characters?

Frederick Busch: Right on, Dennis: It all starts for me with characters. I find that once I know whom my characters love, and what kind of work they do, I then begin to observe how they happen to the world and cause the world to respond to them. But they come to me first. Fiction that disdains characters or sees them as subservient to plot is, for me, a kind of connect-the-dots game. Characters are holy mysteries, and they are owed their author's heartfelt commitment, observation, and even for the nasty ones affection. Thanks for the good question.


J. Burroughs from Norwich, NY: Frederick Busch, I must first tell you that I have loved reading your writing for many, many years. I first read your books when I lived in England in the early 1970s and would be hard put to state my favorite...maybe HARRY AND CATHERINE. I found THE NIGHT INSPECTOR profound...and a book in which I found each word, each paragraph, and each page a remarkable experience. I am wondering this about the book -- besides your vocabulary and imagination -- I am wondering how in the end of the book the characters are going up the Hudson River when we all know that the Hudson flows south. This scene was so strong that I would buy into it no matter what...but, still, how did you come up with that? Thanks, Frederick.

Frederick Busch: The Hudson, as I have the feeling you already know, flows south while, as a tidal river, its strong surges, if you will, flow north. So surge meets surge. In fictive terms, of course. Let me say how generous your comments about my work are, and how much I appreciate them.


Jen from Jersey City, NJ: In reading your review on our site, I was surprised to learn that you had at one point finished a sequel to HARRY AND CATHERINE, but never published it. I can't tell you how sorry I am to hear this, because it's one of my favorite books! Do you think you will ever try again?

Frederick Busch: Jen, I think about trying another version of the other version all the time. I do want to bring HARRY AND CATHERINE together once more and give them one more chance to understand what you and I already know: that they ought to stay together!


Uli from Denver, CO: THE MUTUAL FRIEND depicts Charles Dickens during his career, and I would imagine that this would be easier to research than the time of life in which you approach Melville in THE NIGHT INSPECTOR, that is, after the prime of his writing career. Why did you choose to set the book at this point in Melville's life, and how did you research it? Thank you for taking my question.

Frederick Busch: Uli, I had to deal with this time in Melville's life because it was when he was most tested and that is when characters are most interesting: His son died, his career failed, his marriage grew even more strained -- his wife did think about abandoning him -- and he was at his most complex moment. Researching it involved rereading much of his work, especially journals, and the poetry he was then writing about the Civil War and his journeys to the Holy Land. And, as I said elsewhere in this chat, I studied the city he lived in, the handbooks published by the government for the proper conduct of inspectors of customs; and then I used my imagination -- any writer can imagine some of the horror Melville endured when he was eclipsed, denied a way to give his versions of reality. But during this time, no one knew that he continued to write fiction -- BILLY BUDD wasn't discovered until someone opened a trunk in an attic in the '20s -- continued to write even though he had no prayer of the work seeing publication. That, to me, is heroic, and deserves the attention of lesser novelists such as I.


Mike from Chapel Hill, NC: Could you tell us about LETTERS TO A FICTION WRITER? As a teacher, I can imagine where the idea came from. How did it come about? How did you find all the letters to be included? How did you choose which authors are included in the book?

Frederick Busch: Ann Beattie writes about certain angers writers must contend with, and Janet Burroway writes about envy among writers, and Andre Dubus writes about being a good person as a writer, and Raymond Carver writes about the writer's disease, boozing. There are 35 or so letters to newer or younger writers from established writers, including Caroline Gordon's critique of Flannery O'Connor's first novel, WISE BLOOD.


J.C. from Oakland, CA: Your books seem to have a lot of love triangles in them -- or, at least, affairs of sorts. What compels you to write about them?

Frederick Busch: Not sure what else we ought to be writing about. I love to read about people who love each other, or try to, or fail to, and I guess I write what I like to read. Even in THE NIGHT INSPECTOR, a dark and moody investigation of 19th-century American life, there are a number of moments when love and sexuality come to the fore.


Tom from Michigan: You've been writing a long, long time, and you've written a whole lot of books -- three since this fall! How in the world do you stay so productive? Have you always worked as hard as you do? What drives you?

Frederick Busch: I am a bearer of small brain and know only a few areas of human endeavor. I love to have written, and I often enjoy the writing itself, and I define myself as the man who tries to make decent language every day. Good question.


Moderator: Do you have any books you've been saving up to read this summer?

Frederick Busch: I don't think I can resist reading HANNIBAL. I want to reread Ford Madox Ford's THE GOOD SOLDIER. And I want to reread Camus's THE PLAGUE -- this latter book because I am reminded of it by Stewart O'Nan's absolutely brilliant recent novel, A PRAYER FOR THE DYING.


Elise from Brooklyn, NY: The character of Billy Bartholomew -- both past and present -- is fascinating. I'm interested to learn where he started out in your mind. When you began writing his character, was he a sniper in the trees, or a maimed veteran in New York City?

Frederick Busch: I knew that he would be a veteran, but I didn't know much more about him until Judy and I saw a retrospective show at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan: Winslow Homer's paintings and etchings. As you entered the show, the first painting you saw was of a Union sniper in a tree, aiming his rifle. It's called "A Marksman on Picket Duty." Homer reproduced the painting in etchings for Harper's Weekly. I knew, as soon as I saw it, that my protagonist would be this man, but horribly wounded, and that much of the novel would have to do with what snipers do best: seeing. There's a lot in the novel about how we see each other and the world. Great question, Elise!


Ian from Westchester, NY: With two books about the writing life out this year both of which have been inspiring to me -- thank you, you, above all, I trust to give advice to a young writer. Do you have any? Thanks so much.

Frederick Busch: If you can do anything but write, do that. Writing makes for a tough life, and it's hard on the folks who love you because you get a little crazy and obsessive. But if you must write, then please do. Write when you've the most energy if you can; if you must obey someone else's schedule, steal one hour a day and make good language in that time. Read, always, the best language you like. No matter how poor you are, buy the book, every now and then, of a writer you admire: It's a vote he or she needs. Love your characters a lot, love yourself a little less, and be brave. Good luck!


Penney from Houston, TX: I know that as well as being a writer, you are also a teacher, and a very good one, I have heard. It seems that few jobs allot the time and space for a writer to write. Do you think teaching is the best profession for a serious writer to have today?

Frederick Busch: Being a good teacher, Penney, is as draining a job as I know, though college teachers seem to drain less than elementary and secondary-school teachers, who for my money are the most important people in the country. My advice is to be rich or, failing that, do what I suggested before: steal an hour a day -- you can write a novel working that way. Good luck.


Ted Berrings from Hanover, NH: Whom would you list as your literary influences? Also, which contemporary authors are you fond of?

Frederick Busch: Andrea Barrett, Robert Stone, Philip Levine, Joanna Scott, Leslie Epstein, Grace Paley, Peter Carey, Reginald McKnight, and hundreds and hundreds more.


Moderator: Thank you, Frederick Busch! Best of luck with THE NIGHT INSPECTOR. Before you leave, do you have any parting thoughts for the online audience?

Frederick Busch: I'd like to thank the people who asked questions. They were interesting, and fun to think about. Cheers.


Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

1. Of all American authors, Herman Melville is perhaps most closely associated with the phrase "The Great American Novel." What do you know about Melville and his work? About the book for which he is most celebrated, Moby-Dick? How does this knowledge affect your understanding of Busch's novel?

2. On a similar note, what do you know of Busch's work, particularly his most recent novels? What themes and motifs do you see present here that build upon his earlier work? What departures do you detect?

3. The Melville we meet in this novel is a man disgraced and ruined--abandoned by his publishers, forgotten by his readers, consigned to a grim job as an inspector of cargoes in the Port of New York. His career is all but over and ironically, the source of his misery is the commercial failure of Moby-Dick--the very novel for which he is now most remembered. Why do you think Busch has chosen this inglorious phase in the author's life as his focus? And what do you make of the use of the letter M in place of Melville's name?

4. The novel's narrator, William Bartholomew, is a Civil War sniper-a trained assassin, skillful at his job. What is your impression of him? Is he a cold-blooded killer? Despite this background, do you find him to be a sympathetic character? Why do you think Busch has chosen him to tell the tale?

5. Bartholomew knows Melville by reputation and early in the novel arranges a chance meeting over dinner. Initially, Bartholomew's intentions in seeking out the novelist are less than noble: "One could turn a powerful profit if the night inspector turned his head at the right moment, " he says. "It was chancy, of course, but a businessman mustnever close his eyes to chance." But their connection soon grows deeper. What is the nature of this affinity? What bout Melville seems to be attractive or intriguing to Bartholomew, and vice-versa?

6. Since the war, Bartholomew has remade himself as a financier, "a student of the markets, and therefore a manÉwatchful of human needs." How does this role complement his character and background? In what other ways does his postwar life seem linked to this past? Bartholomew is also a literary man, educated at Yale. What purpose does this serve in the tale?

7. Later in the novel we learn about the first man Bartholomew ever killed--his uncle and stand-in stepfather, who he drowns in the effluent of an outhouse. Why do you think Busch includes this scene in the novel. With its particularly gruesome form of death and killing?

8. The novel begins with Bartholomew's mask. At other times in the novel, he wears a veil. How do masks and concealment function as a theme in the novel? What other forms of concealment or masquerading do you find? Are there moments when these masks are lifted? Bartholomew's veil could also be understood as a garment of mourning. What is being mourned--by Bartholomew, by Melville, by the novel?

9. The scenes in the novel that describe Bartholomew's experiences in the Civil War paint a grim picture of that conflict. How does Busch's portrayal of life-at-arms differ from your expectations, and from other accounts of the Civil War that you have read or experienced?

10. One of the most poignant and horrifying moments in the novel occurs when Bartholomew and his fellow soldiers come upon a massacre: a shed full of men, women, and children--whole families--cut down in haste by advancing Union soldiers. Why does Busch include this scene, especially the image of the tiny doll's head? How does this scene prepare us for later events in the novel?

11. What do you understand Melville's son Malcolm's role in the novel to be? What do you make of his desire to be a soldier? How does his suicide advance the story and its themes?

12. The weapon that Malcolm uses to kill himself is the Colt revolver provided by Bartholomew at his father's request. Does this implicate Bartholomew in his suicide? Does it implicate Melville, who arranged for the gun?

13. The children of Chun Ho call Bartholomew gui meaning "ghost." How is this reflective of a larger truth? In what ways is The Night Inspector a ghost story? A detective story? A war story? A family story?

14. Throughout the novel, Bartholomew maintains that he Civil War is a purely economic conflict, a practical contest between two competing economic cultures, guided by no overarching moral purpose. He tells his friend Sam Mordecai, "It's about moneyÉAgrarians need slave labor. Industrialists need cheap labor. If we make the slaves free of Rebels, then the North will use your Negroes in any way they can. We're fighting for the opportunity for men of business, manufacturers, to get their hands on black men, Jews, and broad shouldered girls. It's money, Sam, they're waging the War about." What do you make of his interpretation? Is it cynical, or realistic? What motivates his understanding, and does it seem entirely sincere? How does it square with your own?

15. The main characters of the novel are all outsiders--men and women who in one way or another exist on the margins of society: a forgotten artist, a Creole prostitute, a widowed Chinese laundress, a Negro day-laborer, a Jewish journalist, a faceless war veteran. What do you make of this commonality, and what is your assessment of Busch's intentions in assembling this band?

16. Bartholomew arranges for a tour of New York's Tenderloin District for Mordecai, a "voyage into darkest New York." Melville joins them on this trip, as does the Negro Adam, who Melville describes as "our dusky Virgil, " a reference to Dante's Divine Comedy, in which the Roman poet Virgil plays the role of Dante's tour guide to an imagined underworld. What seem to be Bartholomew's intentions in staging this grim outing? Does he want to educate Mordecai, and , if so, what does he want him to see and learn? Is the trip a success?

17. When their outing concludes, Adam refuses payment and professes regret at his role as guide. He tells Bartholomew, "I showed you a look at bad behavior and sorrow. Like it was minstrels kicking and strumming just for you." What do you make of this moment, and especially of Adam's pain? Do you believe that Bartholomew has taken unfair advantage of Adam's debt to him? In what larger sense does Adam act as a kind of guide--morally, spiritually--for the novel?

18. Many of Busch's novels deal with the subject of endangered or lost children, and certainly this is true of The Night Inspector. Driving the story forward is the plan to rescue a shipload of black children, a scheme that brings all the major characters together at the tale's climax. How does this plot crystallize the novel and its concerns? Is it an effective engine for the tale? What does it show about Bartholomew?

19. Throughout the novel, Busch brings to bear the sense of smell--the stench of war and earth, of animal waste and effluent, of the filthy New York streets and the sewers snaking beneath them. What do you think of this strategy? Is it effective? In what other ways has Busch worked to create a sense of the past, and of 1860s New York?

20. From her early appearance as a minor character, the widowed laundress Chun Ho gradually assumes a greater importance to the novel, culminating in the scene in chapter six in which she makes love to the maskless Bartholomew in his bath. Did this turn of events surprise you? What do you make of their blossoming affinity for one another? What is Chun Ho asking at the end of the chapter when she says to Bartholomew, "Tell me--teach me--you"?

21. The plan to rescue the cargo of black children is ultimately mistaken and thwarted and culminates in a vision of abject horror: a boatload of children drugged and stuffed into barrels to die. How did you react to this scent? Why do you think the writer chose to avoid anything like a "happy ending"?

22. In the chase on the Hudson that follows, Bartholomew is called upon once again to employ his skills as a marksman. Does this occasion differ from those in the past?

23. What do you make of Jessie's role as the Judas figure in the plot? Is her death deserved? After her body is recovered from the river, Bartholomew tells Adam, "At the endÉI think she must have thought of the children. "Why do you think he says this? Does this seem true to you, or is it naïve?

24. The novel provides us with a pair of epilogues: A public reading of A Christmas Carol by the English novelist Charles Dickens, and a brief glimpse of Bartholomew with Chun Ho, walking together on the New York City streets. What does each scene accomplish? Taken together, do they bring about an effective sense of closure to the tale?

25. Does the meaning of the novel's title evolve for you over the course of reading the book? Who or what is a "night inspector"?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2000

    Dark, intriguing, and surprising

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2000

    fascinating book

    I found this book to have great insight into the human condition.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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