The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If you think about it, it doesn't take very long for Ebenezer Scrooge to mend his ways. True, he does have four ghosts visit him, but he's already crying after the first vision that the Ghost of Christmas Past shows him (no, that's not a pimple, even though he says it is), and while it is true that Christmas Yet to Come threatens him with the grave, there's none of that quintessentially human trait of weakened repentance when the consequence retreats.
No, it just takes one (very busy) night to turn what his colleagues called Old Scratch into one of the finest men "that the old city knew." And so when Charles Dickens turns up reading at the end of Frederick Busch's "The Night Inspector," the main character, William Bartholomew, is skeptical at the speed of Scrooge's transformation.
Of course, the darkness in Bartholomew's heart has more layers than Scrooge's. A sniper for the Union in the Civil War, who occasionally had to kill dogs, horses and other animals while sneaking up on unsuspecting targets, most of whom still walk the halls of his memory. A mishap with his last target gets most of Bartholomew's lower face shot off, and as a result, he spends his days behind a paperboard mask (or a silk veil when eating).
An investment speculator after the war, Bartholomew is entranced by the beautifully tattooed prostitute, Jessie, who entices him out of his mask and seems to love him, although the more slowly building affections of his laundress, Chun Ho, also intrigue him. Jessie and Bartholomew are hatching a plot that requires the assistance of someone in the New York City Customs office, and Bartholomew meets Herman Melville, currently in the declining years of his self-esteem (and his writing career), having done little after Moby-Dick, which did quite little for him during his life.
This plot only reveals itself slowly, but what at first seems to be a plot to rescue African-American children in the South from the cruelties that still went on, even after Emancipation and Surrender becomes a whirlwind that confirms the cynicism with which Bartholomew and the Anti-Transcendentalist Melville viewed the world.
Busch masterfully hops back and forth from Civil War memories to the narrative's present day, even in the middle of a paragraph, as one imagines must have happened in the mind of this physically and emotionally maimed sniper. The ending is not as neatly tied together as those for which Dickens became famous, but this disfigured soldier will make you wonder about the usefulness of any war, at any time.
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