Banking on the Melville Myth and Novel Uses for Scrimshaw

The Night Inspector , by Frederick Busch. Harmony Books, 278 pages, $23.

One of the many pleasures of reading Edwin G. Burrows’ and Mike Wallace’s monumental Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 , which I hope to finish one day, is discovering how much our own New York has in common with yesterday’s city. From the beginning, New Yorkers have lived and died by the motto boldly stated in The Destruction of Gotham , an apocalyptic 1886 best seller, “Thou Shall Not Be Poor.” While this commandment has proved about as binding as God’s in Exodus, the teeming crowd of speculators, landlords, party bosses, gangsters, tradesmen, hucksters, immigrants and artists brought so vividly to life in Gotham: A History certainly didn’t lack ambition. Leave it to disgruntled New York author Herman Melville–born to a wealthy family on Pearl Street, an early beneficiary and later a victim of the city’s financial whims–to invent Bartleby the scrivener, the only man on Wall Street who would prefer not to “grow” the economy.

The tragic story of Melville’s life is an entrenched American myth, cherished especially by novelists, who, as a species, tend to feel endangered by the forces of the marketplace, and, as individuals, believe they are possessed by a wild Melvillean genius, no matter how ineffectual the pages of their fiction. Though he died in 1891, Melville has become the 20th century’s Great American Novelist through sheer force of criticism. His work has inspired those with ready access to his turbulence, like D.H. Lawrence and the poet Charles Olson, and others who could only marvel at his storm of language from a landlocked distance, like F.O. Mathiessen and, most recently, the biographer Hershel Parker, whose first volume, bringing Melville to 1851, is so burdened with the particulars of the daily grind that one suspects Mr. Parker of being a closet nihilist.

Melville worship takes an unsettling turn with Frederick Busch’s historical novel The Night Inspector , a particularly lurid example of the “literary thriller,” that combination of mutually exclusive ambitions that has lately become so prevalent in bookstores. Mr. Busch’s novel is set in the back alleys and along the waterfront of Manhattan in 1867. The Civil War has populated with freed slaves the slums of neighborhoods like Africa (Thompson Street); the tenements of Five Points (Chinatown) are overrun with mangled veterans, among them our main character, William Bartholomew, a former Union sharpshooter who lost his face–literally–to vengeful Confederates. Mr. Busch evokes the cause and consequences of his war wound beautifully, and the novel’s opening scene, in which Bartholomew is fitted for a resin mask, is a small marvel of realist restraint. But the novel’s decline begins at Cheerie’s Chophouse when Barth-olomew, who is a Yale University graduate, trades his mask for the veil he uses at mealtime and joins at his table the great author, forgotten for now (and referred to cagily as “M”).

“I have read The Whale ,” he tells Melville, who is earning a meager living as a Customs inspector. “I think it a blinding brilliance, the epitaph of our economy.” Soon the grateful author is calling his masked fan “shipmate” and, in keeping with the tenor of Barth-olomew’s admiration, they seal their friendship with a business transaction. M’s son Malcolm has joined the National Guard, and he needs a reliable weapon. Bartholomew offers his .31-caliber Navy Colt at a bargain price, in part to rid himself of its murderous history, and M accepts the offer. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Melville’s life knows what fate has in store for Malcolm and his new revolver, and the rest will be able to guess. That a friendly deal should end in disaster is typical of Melville’s sorry luck. Why the same gun should go off again during a stormy boat chase up the Hudson is a question that only Mr. Busch can answer, perhaps with the help of his Hollywood agent.

“The historical novel,” the critic James Wood writes with his usual acuity, “as practiced today, is merely science fiction facing backwards, with all the attending crudities.” Meaning that historical fiction treats the past as if it were an unknown world, imposing conditions on the “period” described to make it hospitable to readers. Like an imagined future, the re-created past is both exotic and reassuringly familiar. The signs of our contemporary life are everywhere in The Night Inspector , easily apparent beneath the trappings of Mr. Busch’s “realism”: from the scene of a civilian massacre by the Union Army (Rwanda, Srebenica), to the description of a child prostitute in full costume (JonBenet Ramsey), to a sadomasochistic orgy witnessed through an “aperture,” complete with collars, whips and–no joke–a scrimshaw dildo. (On the lighter side, we are also treated to a public reading by Charles Dickens, who refreshes himself between chapters with a drink from the inevitable “carafe” of ice water.) The novel’s “Dantean excursion” into urban misery, circa 1867, is especially disturbing, not because the details are historically inaccurate, but because the episodes themselves have been tailored for maximum appeal. In more careful historical fiction, like Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara , the events of the past seem to be governed by the logic of their context, and the reader is not pandered to with nods and winks, but entrusted with the means of discovering just what, in the narrative, might be familiar and therefore “universal.”

Or, to put it another way: Sometimes a scrimshaw dildo should just be a dildo.

Mr. Busch knows his Melville, and the themes he explores in The Night Inspector all appear in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Billy Budd and Other Stories . Chief among them is Melville’s famous complaint to Hawthorne, “Dollars damn me.… What I feel most moved to write, that is banned–it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot.” The M of The Night Inspector repeats this in a line of dialogue, and often refers to passages from his books at length; he is so quotable, in fact, that he inspires a reporter with literary aspirations, Sam Mordecai, to follow him around with a notebook and scribble down his bitter wisdom for posterity. These moments are meant to be grave, the serious heart of a novel that Mr. Busch, who enjoys a tidy literary reputation, has chosen to “write the other way.” But the period realism Mr. Busch practices has a very strict set of limits, and

dialogue like this, no matter what the source, damages the novel’s credibility.

“I, for myself, have made up my mind to be annihilated,” M pronounces one day while gazing at a dead horse in the gutter (the line was recorded by Hawthorne after a meeting with Melville in 1856). “I mean that when I am finished, I am finished .” Perhaps historical realism is finished–now that Thomas Pynchon has usurped its methods–and then some–for his endlessly inventive Mason & Dixon , which treats every indigenous form of American literature, high and low, as an equal source of satire, and yet manages, in an old-fashioned way, to weave these disparate elements into a substantial narrative. Each time sad, quotable M made another appearance in The Night Inspector , I couldn’t help thinking of Benjamin Franklin running into Mason and Dixon at the Apothecary in Philadelphia and advising them, as Dixon orders his medicinal laudanum, “Strangers, heed my wise advice,–Never pay the Retail Price.”

Mason & Dixon is uncompromising literature, and much closer in ambition and spirit to Melville than The Night Inspector . Using, as Mr. Busch does, Melville’s principled fall from the best seller lists of the 1840′s to brazenly scale the Amazon.com rankings is, to put it mildly, insincere. But this is New York, after all, where the avenues are wide enough for multitudes to chase the dollar, and there is no time to worry about consequences, just remuneration. In the excitement of the author’s press junket, barely a soul will notice that Mr. Busch, in breaking his pact with literature to obey the first commandment of the marketplace, has damned his loved and labored-over pages to the cruelest fate of all: providing cheap thrills for an indifferent readership.