The Night Inspector

Near the end of Frederick Busch’s compelling novel The Night Inspector, Herman Melville, once a popular novelist but now, in 1867, a customs inspector—the “night inspector”—asserts, “How else might we tell the world our terrible thoughts except through these masks?” And indeed the issue of masks is central, not only to Melville’s opus, but also to this tale, starting with its narrator, William Bartholomew, a veteran of the Civil War whose face was so hideously destroyed in the last days of the war that he wears a pasteboard mask. Formerly a sniper in the war, Bartholomew has become an investor in New York City, and he, like Melville and numerous other characters in the book, conceal their secret lives behind both literal and figurative masks.

Bartholomew and Melville conspire with Jessie, a Creole prostitute whose hidden life is also rich with complexities, to rescue slave children from a Florida school. As he narrates this effort, which collapses in a gruesome way, Bartholomew has flashbacks to his childhood and his wartime experiences, moving the reader back and forth in time, thus conflating several periods in history and reinforcing Melville’s comment, “We live in several moments, several places, at once.”

Similarly, this novel is several books at once, all of them about combat. The Night Inspector is a snapshot of Civil War battles and post-Civil War New York as it fights to become a modern city. Like Busch’s reconstruction of Charles Dickens in The Mutual Friend (1978), this book is a study of Herman Melville and his wars with himself and the world which has relegated him to the occupation of customs inspector. And finally, The Night Inspector is a reflection on the most important battlefield of all: the human heart.