The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”It was the War. The interests of money and the will of our Commander decreed it. Battle for the rights of the industrialists, battle for the rights of the agriculturists, battle on behalf of bullyrag Abe, who saw himself, I insist, as the issue: my will, my national entity, my idea of indivisibility. Crush the farmboys and the desperate Negroes into one another with a thunderclap. And see to it--be sure!--one William Bartholomew receives the national hoofprint in his head. I’m a coin imprinted with Abe’s earnestness.”
The Sharpshooter by Winslow Homer on display at the Portland Museum of Art. Billy implies that he was the model for this painting.
I would say that William Bartholomew had just cause in being bitter, but when we weigh the cosmic scales of justice there is generally always a few ingots of information that we may not choose to put on the scale for fear that it will determine a different outcome contrary to our feelings. It is rare that a finger is not on the scale even by those that are duly elected to judge the rest of us. For those of us not wearing robes we may allow emotion to override the details, but then who among us has the right to judge Billy Bartholomew.
He was sanctioned in what he did. He was a killer for Abe.
”The colonel was a girlish-looking young man in a creased but clean-looking uniform, and he had long, fine fingers with which he tapped on the air, as if working out the proper phrase, or, for all I knew, the rhyme scheme of a poem. I put a bullet into the side of his head, which appeared to disintegrate as he went over, hands and elbows loose in the air, a cloud of sprayed blood remaining behind an instant where he had been. The ink spilled, and the pen hung in the air although the writer was gone while the shot still echoed.”
Billy was a sharpshooter. A man lauded and reviled in the same breath.
Every man in that war had the opportunity to become a killer. Some fired their weapons high on purpose. Some thought God was guiding their bullets. Some believed it was just a damn dirty job that had to be done. Some didn’t know they liked killing until the war introduced them to the Devil. Some killed themselves rather than jeopardize their souls in taking the life of another. Some men reveled in finally being able to embrace their baser natures.
Billy was a killer long before he joined the Union army.
His Uncle took it upon himself to see to his brother’s family after Billy’s Dad died. He was reasonably wealthy so the family was not a burden to him. He was a businessman and didn’t see the sense in giving money without something in return. He was very clear in his demands. It was either his brother’s wife or his brother’s son, it didn’t matter which, but one of them was going to have to service his carnal appetite.
It wasn’t so much that Billy killed him, but how he killed him. Which brings us back to his decision to be a sharpshooter. There is a darkness in him. He wasn’t up in those trees shooting men for Abe. He was up in those trees shooting men because he was good at it. He liked it.
Sure, he had doubts. He wasn’t a total psychopath, but maybe it had more to do with the fact that he could hear the hoof beats of retribution. Abe wasn’t going to be there when that horseman arrived. Billy was going to have to face it on his own.
Abe carried the burden of what he asked you to do Billy. His face shows the blemishes of war.
”My head burned from within, like one of the ruined manorial houses, all roasted black shell and sullen embers, which I had seen before the hunters took me down.”
It was an unlucky shot. It was a bullet from a mirror, his counterpart on the other side. It was a bullet meant to kill him, but it exploded the magazine of his rifle, sending shrapnel and liquid fire into his face.
He begged them to kill him, but a debt is a debt and Billy hadn’t paid all of his yet.
He wears a mask. His face is a horror show too damaged to repair.
He moves to New York, the city of commerce. He starts making money. He places investments for himself and others. He meets Jessie a prostitute who lifts his mask and kisses the rigid scars of his battlefield face.
”I wondered who had passed down eyes of such coloration if her mother was African or Polynesian, and her father a slave. There was a white man in the woodpile, I thought. I thought, too, of the loveliness of her face, the strength of her long throat, the savagery in her tattoos. She was a letter I had read with my fingers, like a man long blind who at last has a message he was years before intended to receive.”
Jessie has plans for Billy. Everyone craves affection. A monster needs it more than most. The tattered remnants of his soul are hers for the taking.
Bartholomew meets the writer of The Whale. A man ignored by readers. A man now besot with drink. A man who instead of devoting his time to scribbling is working for the government as a Custom Inspector on the docks of New York. Frederick Busch does an excellent job bringing Melville to life. For those that are big fans of Melville this will be the next best thing to meeting him. You may not greet him at his best, but you will certainly be left with a view of him that rings true.
To help Jessie Billy Bartholomew knows he needs Melville. He takes him on a tour of the seamier side of town. A look through a peephole in a bordello lends weight to Billy’s request of Melville. It also leaves everyone in the party feeling dirty. ”I showed you a look at bad behavior and sorrow. Like it was minstrels kicking and strumming just for you.” They paid to look through the peephole to give them distance from these disgusting liberties being taken, but by being an observer without action they became part of the problem.
There is ugliness in this novel beyond the disfigured grotesqueness of Billy’s shattered face. With poverty rampant in 1867 and so many more widowed women and orphaned children from the war vulnerable to the desires and profits of the strong, it wasn’t only the South suffering through darkest days. Busch doesn’t shy away from the grit, the stench, and the ruthlessness of this time period. In fact, he pushes the reader up to the peephole and whispers in your ear…”what are you going to do about it?”
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