William Bartholomew is a survivor of the American Civil War, but in many ways he is also a casualty. His face was destroyed, so he wears a mask, but he also bears less discernible scars from his work as a sniper for the Union army.
Bartholomew is working as a commodities trader when he meets the writer Herman Melville. He has read and admired Moby Dick, but the novel was mostly met with mockery by the critics and ignored by the public. Unable to take care of his family with his earnings as a writer, Melville takes a job as a deputy customs inspector.
Bartholomew has a relationship with a Creole prostitute that he considers deeper than the usual one of client. She asks for his help in a venture that seems laudable but is illegal. To pull it off, he must involve Melville.
At first, I wasn’t sure where this novel was going. It is dark and sometimes disturbing, and I even thought it might become a mystery. It does not, but it fully captures the consciousness of a man who is tough but has had to fight to keep from being shattered by circumstances, his own actions, and his conscience.
It is also a vehicle for depicting Melville. There, I was not so sure it was going to be successful in making Melville interesting until the denouement of the novel.