It’s giving absolutely nothing away to say that Pompeii, the brisk new historical thriller by ”Fatherland” author Robert Harris, ends with a really big eruption. In fact, knowing exactly what infernal nightmare lies in store for the unsuspecting sybarites of ”Pompeii,” lounging in their communal baths and vomiting mid-banquet, is what makes this book such a page-turner. It’s certainly not the workmanlike narrative or characters, who are quickly forgotten every time Mount Vesuvius, the real protagonist, emits another sulfurous puff of smoke.
The year is A.D. 79, and in the prosperous southern reaches of the Roman Empire, effete bisexual men pluck all the hair from their bodies and feast on sows’ vulvas, flamingo tongues, and mice rolled in honey. But the novel’s stoic young hero, the engineer Attilius, doesn’t indulge in any of this: He enjoys hard work, sleeps on a narrow spartan bed, and mourns his wholesome wife who died in childbirth.
”Pompeii” begins two days before the eruption, when all the precious mullets in the fishery of a scheming tycoon named Ampliatus suddenly die. Ampliatus, the book’s nastiest, most vital character, holds one of his slaves responsible and promptly decides to throw him into a pond full of bloodthirsty eels, deeply distressing his tenderhearted daughter Corelia. In an attempt to save the slave, Corelia enlists the help of Attilius, who shares her humanistic tendencies, admires her milky skin, and after a glance at the mullet pool, concludes that a serious problem with the water supply — not a careless peon — killed the fish.
Attilius traces the trouble to a mysterious blockage in the aqueduct on the slopes of nearby Vesuvius. Below, in the sumptuous resort town of Pompeii, Ampliatus is building some luxurious new baths — and, Attilius suspects, stealing public water. This ”Chinatown”-style plotline runs parallel to the far more gripping mystery of the mountain itself and Attilius’ struggle to figure out why it has been issuing thunderous bangs and smelling peculiarly of sulfur.
As fine, high-toned airplane reading, ”Pompeii” succeeds admirably. But was this all that Harris had in mind? Regrettably not. He begins the novel with a chauvinistic pre-9/11 epigraph from Tom Wolfe sounding off on the United States’ superiority in ”all matters,” followed by a similar chest-beating remark from Pliny the Elder two years before Vesuvius blew. Harris’ somewhat muddled point seems to be that awful, fiery things happen to mighty imperial powers, leaving their citizens covered in ash. But trying to assign meaning to a volcano is bogus, detracting from the unique horror of ”Pompeii”: Vesuvius wasn’t political, it didn’t have an agenda, and within hours it mindlessly eradicated a world.