Having recently read “The Alienist”, a historical novel based in New York City at the end of the 19th century, I thought I would go back in time to post-Civil War New York City and read Frederick Busch’s “The Night Inspector”. There is no comparison between the two novels. Although both are somewhat gruesome and transport real people into their fictionalized world, Frederick Busch is a very accomplished writer.
For three-quarters of the book I was mesmorized and kept waiting for his prose and the plot to falter. Unfortunately, the latter met my expectation. The principle character is William Bartholomew, a Civil War Union sharpeshooter, whose face was deformed in recompense for his assassinations. His mental acuity is unaffected, and his soul is intact, but in jeopardy. He is professional, as an investment banker might be.
Mr. Busch treads both hallowed and hollowed ground. His descriptions of the War and of New York City during that period are the highlights of the book. “Billy” as he is known treads the gutters of New York City, although his economic condition does not require it. He makes the acquaintance of a customs inspector “M” whose literary abilities were not fully recognized. “M” is the author of “The Whale” and Mr. Busch uses the character to provide literary criticism of Mr. Melville and writing in general. In this respect, “The Night Inspector” can be as philosophical as it is descriptive of time, place, and character. His usage of “M” becomes objectionable to me at the end of the novel. He unfortunately employs “M” in a contrived plot. “The Alienist” did this with Theodore Roosevelt as well. My preference is non-fiction should not fictionalized. Best to keep to the historical script or to use such “characters” as vehicles for themes that the author wishes to explore. It is a matter of taste.
What some readers may also find troubling are the flashbacks without warning. This is the way we think, but you have to adjust to the rhythm of one sentence being in the present and the next in the Civil War or during Billy’s childhood.
I understand that Mr. Bausch is no longer alive. This is unfortunate. His writing, while capable to begin with, seemed to be improving with age. He had been acting director of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, so aspiring writers and others should find this work well worth their time. Stephen Crane would appreciate this work.