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Book Review

Tending Deeper Wounds After the Civil War

THE NIGHT INSPECTOR by Frederick Busch; Harmony Books; $23, cloth; 288 pages

May 27, 1999|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1851, "grim about the mouth" and suffering in the "insular city of the Manhattoes" from a condition that half a century later would acquire the name "angst," the young sailor Ishmael embarked on a voyage to hunt a great white whale. Sixteen years later, in 1867, Ishmael's captain, one Herman Melville, found himself in New York, washed up and written out. "Moby-Dick," or "The Whale" as it was called in England, was more than 15 years forgotten, and his latest novel, "The Confidence Man," had been dismissed by one critic as "an abortion." With a wife, two sons and three daughters to support, Melville was living in New York City and making a decent living as an inspector of customs. Then one morning, his eldest son, Malcolm, shot himself in the head with a revolver.

While the younger Melville, like his Ishmael, might have drowned his sorrow by going to sea, Ishmael's customary "substitute for pistol and ball," the older writer is persuaded to put his customs badge to use, to forward a plot or two, by a man whose mask is even more opaque than his own.

To say that Billy Bartholomew, the hero of Frederick Busch's 19th novel, "The Night Inspector," is as "grim about the mouth" as Ishmael, is to ignore the ruined cheek, the outraged nose, the craters and creases that define a face ruined by an explosion in the waning days of the Civil War. A marksman for the Union forces, Billy was a holy albatross, both treasured and reviled by his own comrades as an expert assassin, a man who would just as soon shoot an unarmed civilian as a fully rigged cavalryman. Billy had learned early on that the rules of war were farce and that a dead man had no preference as to whether he was killed with a gun in his right hand or a cup of coffee in his left.

Billy is not only a superb marksman, but a metaphysician in the style of a Melville hero. "I knew a good shooter had to believe that everything solid and still was an illusion, and that it all was always moving, up and down, around, away." Two years after the Civil War, with the aid of this metaphysics and a simple painted mask, Billy has reentered the world with a sharp sense for finance. His war wounds have only deepened his suspicion of morality. For Billy, the war was not about slavery and freedom, right and wrong. "The new world was business, with a frontier broader than the overall combined dimension of our every Western state. It was how the national greatness or its subtle, dark, most woeful appetites would be expressed."

Despite his mask of cynicism and his success at business, Billy is a man with his own dark appetites. Falling in love with Jessie, a Creole prostitute in Yorkville, he agrees to marshal the forces of his friends and debtors to help her free a secret cache of young black children, still held in slavery in the residue of the Southern states. He builds a melting pot of a posse with the aid of Adam, a freed slave, and Sam, a Jewish comrade from Billy's wartime squadron, now a journalist, drawn by the opportunity to "tell the tale."

The final member of the gang is the great writer, Melville himself, who provides Billy with a false customs stamp for his dusky imports. Shaken from the grimness of his son's suicide by the nobility of Billy's adventure, Melville, the night inspector in the harbor, helps guide Billy from his own nighttime inspection of the bowels of Manhattan. "The streets of New York bring forth the War," Melville says to Billy, who is in flight from the memories of his wartime "assassinations." "We live in several moments, several places, at once." Only a protean author like Melville, with the ability to create masks with the fluidity of a Mississippi River confidence man could save someone who hides so well behind a mask of resin and shellac.

The prolific Busch, the author not only of novels like the 1997 literary mystery "Girls," but of introductions and afterwords on the likes of Dickens and Melville, has combined the two hemispheres of his interests into a splendid novel that is equal parts thriller and meditation on those post-bellum, prelapsarian days following the Civil War--days of emancipation but also days of sorrow and confusion in a time when the post-traumatic stress of veterans was as common and uninvestigated as rotting corpses in the Tenderloin of Manhattan, and confidence was a game.

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