One cataclysmic disaster can ruin your whole day, but at least it
has the advantage of surprise. That's more than can usually be said
for stories about cataclysmic disasters, which lumber toward their
climax like some bore telling a multipart joke you've already heard.
Who honestly didn't feel the urge to push a few heads under water to
speed up James Cameron's interminable "Titanic"? We endure
documentaries about German aerodynamics because we want to see the
Hindenburg in flames. "Oh, the banality!"
Robert Harris confronts this very problem in his new novel about
the explosion of Vesuvius, called simply "Pompeii." When the story
opens on Aug. 22, AD 79, we know that by the end of the week, none
of these characters will be shouting "TGIF." But how to fill the
pages till that moment when the mountain erupts with a force 100,000
times as strong as the Hiroshima atomic bomb, shooting magma at a
speed of Mach 1?
Harris admits that he just barely avoided disaster himself. After
observing the United States for more than a year, he had intended to
write a novel set in the near future. "The story I had in mind," he
says, "might loosely be described as 'The Walt Disney Company takes
over the world': a thriller about a utopia going horribly wrong,"
but "the characters stubbornly refused to come alive and the subject
remained as flimsy as smoke." Or, perhaps he realized that Julian
Barnes had already written that novel brilliantly just three years
ago in "England, England." But for whatever reason, we've been
spared another Brit's satire of America ("Vernon God Little" is
enough to endure for this season), and given this terrifically
engaging novel instead.
The key to Harris's success is his concentration on a crisis that
preceded the volcano's eruption by two days. Back in 33 BC, the
Romans had constructed a 60-mile aqueduct that eventually served
towns all along the Bay of Naples, giving rise to a culture and an
economy that floated high on the presumption of dependable, clean
water. When a break in the main line begins shutting off one town
after another, only Marcus Attilius Primus knows how to save the
Attilius, as he's called, is a young widower, a water engineer
from a long line of water engineers, who's just been appointed to
Misenum, home to a Roman fleet. His early weeks on the job have been
rough: His predecessor has vanished mysteriously, his staff mocks
his authority, and now the water has stopped flowing for the first
time in 100 years, threatening to plunge a quarter of a million
people into dry chaos.
Piecing together reports from travelers about the status of other
towns along the coast, Attilius quickly deduces that the break must
be some- where near Pompeii. As the reservoir drains in Misenum, he
secures permission from Pliny the Elder (wonderfully brought back to
life here) and heads out with a small, reluctant crew.
The passage of 2,000 years has not diminished the technical
dimensions of this task - nor the social risks of failure. Harris
conveys the modern elements of this ancient life with startling
One can't help considering the two crumbling tunnels that supply
New York City with all of its water. …