Saturday, June 30, 2012

Book review: The Night Inspector

Frederick Busch's The Night Inspector is one of the last several novels the prolific and respected writer would write.  Professor Busch passed in 2006.  This novel was my introduction to his work.  
The Night Inspector is the story of William Bartholomew, a Civil War veteran working as a financial investor in New York City. Bartholomew was horribly maimed in the war, his face disfigured to the extent that he wears a pasteboard mask in public.  His nightly roaming about the city brings him into contact with many interesting and enigmatic characters, including a certain "M." the largely forgotten author of a book about a whale.  Bartholomew becomes involved in a plot to effect the escape of some black children held in bondage in post-war Florida.  As he goes about his task, engaging various underworld figures, he recalls his experiences in the war and from his childhood that reveal his extraordinary nature.  

Frederick Busch was certainly talented, and his name invokes respect among literary circles, but I found this book, The Night Inspector, difficult to access.  Busch doesn't condescend to his readers, and that's good.  On the other hand, the narrative is arduous, difficult.  I humbly suggest that Professor Busch sometimes overburdens his sentences.  
Try this, for example:  
I thought of Sam as picket, asking me for the parole, and telling me about the pillar of salt.  I thought of men falling over and turning gray as they fell, their blood pulsing away.  And I thought, of a sudden, about my uncle Sidney Cowper, who did not die as a pillar of salt, but who drowned in a privy in the cold, cruel countryside of upper New Your State, turning even as he died into the substance that was at his core.  He had grown heavy, as I could tell in those days when I returned, on a rare visit, from school; in the night, from my room in the little house, I heard my mother grunting as he had her.  She sounded as though the strain upon her frame was great.  And it was clear that her emotions were taxed.  Her eyes were underscored with dark, lined flesh.  Her mouth was bitter of expression, and she wept easily over small matters she would once not have noticed.  When I asked after her health, she leaned upon me as if she would hide inside my chest.
Hoo, boy!  That's a mouthful, is it not?   Further, I found the dialog to be obscure.  The characters speak to each other in knowing tones about a world from which I, as the reader, felt excluded.

In the end, I suppose it's one of those "style" things.  "No accounting for tastes," and all that.  I may pick up another Busch novel one day.  I've heard that his novel Girls may be his magnum opus.   But for now, at least, I'm going back to David Mitchell.

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