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By Frederick Busch

Harmony Books, 1999 (HC)
Ballantine Books, May, 2000 (trade paperback)

Reviewed by J. Ashley (6/2000)

This dark, lyrical novel features Herman Melville (referred to as M) in his role as customs inspector for incoming ships to New York City. His masterpiece, Moby Dick, has received little enthusiasm, and Melville resigns himself to the fact that his literary popularity is behind him.

He finds, however, appreciation in the person of Billy Bartholomew, the protagonist of the novel, who needs Melville's expertise in his capacity of deputy customs inspector to help him with a problem.

Billy wears a mask to conceal a face destroyed during the Civil War. He had been a sniper in the Union army, employed to murder Confederate military leaders, mapmakers, and other such important targets. Throughout the book, the author weaves Billy's tortured reminiscences of each killing into his present-day life as a financial speculator and lover of Jessie, a Creole prostitute.

Billy agrees to take on a task for Jessie, who asks him to help her deliver freed black children out of Florida. Billy turns to Melville, whom he knows can assist him through the formalities needed to smuggle the children into New York. A few others are recruited to help, and together the unlikely team attempts to rescue the children.

The author's elegant prose makes this book fine reading, even through the gruesome accounts of Billy's days as a sniper and the chilling conclusion. Busch has a long string of novels behind him, and has received the National Jewish Book Award and an award from the Academy of Arts and Letters.

A finely written story for readers who enjoy powerful, thoughtful novels.

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