The View from Pompey’s Head!
Our book today is Hamilton Basso’s 1954 runaway bestseller The View from Pompey’s Head, which brought its fifty-year-old author the one thing he’d once upon a time wanted more than anything from the world, the one thing he’d slowly, gradually convinced himself he’d never have: renown. The book was a huge hit. It spent close to a year on the bestseller lists, was translated into half a dozen languages, was a selection of the Literary Guild (back when that really meant something!), was adapted into a movie, and was the book requested by every other bookstore customer for the whole year (causing a good deal of reflexive bitterness in the breasts of frustrated bookstore clerks in love with classical literature, since most of those customers came into the store asking for “that book about Pompey” – but alas, Pompey’s Head is the name of the fictional Southern town where the novel takes place). It unstoppered what its author semi-ironically referred to as “the streams of providence” and permanently floated a bank account that had seen its share of shallows.
The novel tells the story of Anson Page, a young lawyer (“a slender dark-haired man with serious brown eyes and a grave expression on his thin, well-modeled face”) at a New York firm that represents most of the best-known authors in America. One of Page’s bosses has been alerted to a possible problem: there are allegations that Phillip Greene, an editor at one of the houses the firm represents, may have embezzled twenty thousand dollars from the royalties of the novelist Garvin Wales, whose 1917 blockbuster Cenotaph was “banned in Boston, outlawed in Atlanta, burned in Baltimore, and denounced on the floor of the Senate.” Greene, a Maxwell Perkins stand-in, discovered Wales and labored to bring his books to the reading public, and now Wales, old and blind, has retired to an island just offshore of Pompey’s Head, where his privacy is guarded by his formidable wife, who detested Greene despite all the success he brought her husband.
Wales and his wife aren’t popular with the locals, needless to say. “Friends?” one of them tells Page, “With him? Anybody who’d write the books that he does, with all that rape and incest and somebody catting around on every page, making it seem like that was all we did down South …”
The catch is, Page is a local too, and his boss sends him to Pompey’s Head to handle the whole business. It’s a fraught homecoming, since Page is both disdainful of the snakepit aspects of the place (“God, what an awful town!” he thinks at one point, “The things it does to people!”) and emotionally in love with his memories of it:
Everything came back to him. He could see the squares that everyone was so proud of, not only for their oaks and magnolias and masses of azaleas but also because they had been laid out at least a decade before the squares in Savannah, a circumstance that Savannah was reluctant to admit but which was a matter of historical record just the same, and he could see the narrow Georgian streets that ran off from the squares, each house built close to its neighbor and the streets filled with sunlight that fell through the trees and stippled the sidewalks with a pattern of leafy shadow that shook and trembled with every current of the wind. It probably wasn’t the same any more, not after fifteen years, but on mornings like this there were no fifteen years.
The further complication – the one that sends lightning through the veins of an otherwise slightly conventional you-can’t-go-home-again Southern novel – takes the form of Dinah Blackford, Page’s old love, who has since married a crass and dim-witted businessman named Mico. When Page returns to Pompey’s Head, the novel immediately takes on a dual harmonic: Page is interrogating the past involving Garvin Wales, and the past is interrogating him involving his long-dormant feelings for Dinah, and hers for him. The steadily increasing simmer of these balanced plots gives Basso some incredible dramatic opportunities, and he makes the most of them. The actual revelations surrounding the embezzlement mystery, though well-deployed, are a bit tepid – but the character of Dinah takes on a wrenching depth of tragedy as the novel builds to its climax, a harrowing scene in which, over Page’s anguished protests, Dinah angrily confesses all the secrets of her life:
“You’ve been wondering why I married Mico, haven’t you? It’s been in the back of your mind all the time. Well, I’ll tell you! ‘Swear, fool, or starve, for the dilemma’s even; a tradesman thou! and hope to go to heaven’ – and someday I’ll explain what that means, though I hope to God that I never see you again until you’re so old and wrinkled and horrible that I can laugh myself sick over ever having been in love with you!”
It goes on for pages, and in all its torrid excess it’s one of the best things Ham Basso ever wrote.
He wrote endlessly – it was his profession. He turned out eight novels before he wrote The View From Pompey’s Head (they’re all rock-solid, even his requisite precocious debut, Relics and Angels, and especially what might just be his masterpiece, Wine of the Country), and he did his beloved travel-writing whenever he could, wriggling his toes in the sand at Samoa, letting the waves lap around his knees, he’d grin and say “This is office work!” (some of that travel-writing was collected in a wonderful book called A Quota of Seaweed), and in addition to a slew of newspapers, he also wrote for many years for The New Republic and The New Yorker (as usual with so many authors, the vast, intensely good book-review work he did all those years has never been collected, much less lovingly reprinted). But he never struck gold until he wrote The View From Pompey’s Head.
Naturally, once he struck gold he had no idea what to do with it (sudden ample money often has this effect on ink-stained wretches), and a few years elapsed before his next novel, which ended up being a ‘prequel’ to The View From Pompey’s Head and which more than a few critics considered superior to the earlier work (it was put up for the National Book Award and lost out to Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus). He’d scarcely typed the words “the end” on his last novel when his Creator typed those same words on him; he died in Connecticut in 1964, and his reputation didn’t wait long to follow him into the ground. He himself had often noted how brusquely the American literary scene could deal with those who had only years before been its darlings; he always expected it to happen to him, so he might not be chagrined to know how thoroughly he’s forgotten in the 21st century.
Forgotten, but not entirely gone: plenty of copies of The View From Pompey’s Head can be found ready for purchase online.