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And what exactly has the narrator lost? As we learn in a sequence of flashbacks, Bartholomew served as a Union sniper, picking off stray Confederate soldiers in an extended bout of psychological warfare. Eventually, though, he received a taste of his own medicine, when a enemy bullet destroyed most of his face. Outfitted with an eerie papier-mâché mask, Bartholomew tends to shock postwar observers into silence:
I imagine I understand their reaction: the bright white mask, its profound deadness, the living eyes beneath--within--the holes, the sketched brows and gashed mouth, airholes embellished, a painting of a nose.... Nevertheless. I won this on your behalf, I am tempted to cry, or pretend to. The specie of the nation, the coin of the realm, our dyspeptic economy, the glister and gauge of American gold: I was hired to wear it!Bartholomew has, it should be obvious, a formidable mastery of rhetoric. It's appropriate, then, that he should hook up with that supreme exponent of the American baroque, Herman Melville--who at this point is a burnt-out customs inspector (and candidate for some Victorian 12-step plan). Together these outcasts embark upon a plan to rescue a group of black children from their Florida servitude. This caper--along with Bartholomew's attachment to a gold-hearted, elaborately tattooed prostitute--allows the novel to veer in the direction of the penny dreadful. Yet Busch's mastery of period detail, and of the very shape of century-old syntax, remains extraordinary on every page. And true to its title, The Night Inspector is a superb investigation of darkness--in both the physical and psychological sense. "I was reckless," the narrator insists, "and born with great vision though not, alas, of the interior, spiritual sort." By the end of the novel, most readers will decide that he's undersold himself. --Bob Brandeis
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