by Frederick Busch
Frederick Busch’s novel, The Night Inspector (Ballantine, 2000), isn’t nearly as well known as it should be. (In fact, I fear that Busch himself is known to only a relatively small group of readers; but we’re rabid about loving his books.) The Night Inspector will please fans of historical fiction, those who simply love good writing, and anyone interested in the life and times of Herman Melville, author, of course, of the brilliant short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Moby Dick, and other works. Busch’s novel takes place mainly in Manhattan, just after the end of the War Between the States. The main character, Will Bartholomew, spent his army years as a Union sharpshooter, until the day a bullet from an enemy’s gun horribly disfigured him. Because most of his face was shot away, Bartholomew now wears a papier-mâché mask at all times. Along with Herman Melville, now working as a customs inspector with his writing career apparently at an end, and Jessie, a beautiful Creole prostitute, Bartholomew concocts a plan to rescue a group of black children who are still being held by their owners, despite the abolishment of slavery. Busch has captured in vivid, evocative prose New York of the late 1860s, with its unbridgeable chasms between social classes, its casual cruelties, and its myriad of pleasures and dangers. At the same time, the flashbacks describing Bartholomew’s experiences during the Civil War are graphic enough to give most readers nightmares. (I found it impossible not to visualize them.) Sadly, Frederick Busch died when he was only 65; the literary world lost a great teacher and a productive, imaginative writer. If you’ve never read anything by him, drop everything and start now. Two of my favorite books of his are Girls and Harry and Catherine, but Don’t Tell Anyone is an amazing collection of short stories. In fact, except for Busch’s Closing Arguments, a novel which freaked me out, I can honestly recommend without reservation everything that he wrote.