THIS IS cause for celebration: The reappearance, three decades after its original publication, of a fine novel that most certainly does not deserve the neglect to which it had seemed fated. Like a number of other interesting books, The View from Pompey's Head has been rescued from oblivion by the Arbor House Library of Contemporary Americana, a three-year-old undertaking devoted to "distinguished works of fiction and nonfiction, many of which have long been out of print." The books thus far published in the series are an admirably catholic lot, including as they do works by, among others, Nelson Algren, Ross Lockridge, Bruce Jay Friedman and Sloan Wilson.
The View from Pompey's Head, the bed best-known of Hamilton Basso's 11 novels, provides further illustration that books are chosen for the Arbor House Library on their own merits rather than by the standards of literary fashion. As John W. Aldridge observes in his brief but penetrating introduction, this is fiction of a sort only rarely written now by American novelists:
"Until fairly recently in this country it was possible for novels to be both serious and popular without being in any way cheap, titillating, escapist, or, for that matter, depressing. They could often be of high literary quality and at the same time offer not only entertainment, but something instructive about the nature of American society -- the look and feel of the land, the manners and morals of the people. There was a time, in short, when certain novels written for the general reading audience neither pandered to the worst tastes of that audience nor showed discomfort in speaking intelligently to it. The fatal withdrawal of the serious novel from the vulgar puruit of wide readership and its subsequent flight into fabulation, obscurantism, and gothic nightmare had not yet fully occurred, so that it was still possible for the kind of novel that was at home with its readers and its social materials to remain alive."
The View from Pompey's Head, as Aldridge quite properly claims, is a "distinguished example" of such fiction. It is a novel of manners, in this case the manners of a small Southern city as seen through the eyes of a native son who fled it 15 years before for a law career in New York City. Part of its appeal today, there can be no doubt about it, is pure nostalgia: it is about a time when the South was still an exotic mystery to the rest of the country and a Southerner in the North was a curiosity, when men addressed each other as "Mr." even after long acquaintance, when for $375 a month you could rent a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment in the East Seventies -- all of which conspires to make the reader feel he is being drawn back into a past far preferable to the present, a sensation that is far from disagreeable.
But nostalgia is for the contemporary reader. For the reader of 1954, when the novel was published, it had other, more important, charms -- all of which have survived intact. To say this gives me great pleasure, for in opening the novel for the first time in 30 years I had real doubt that what I had admired when it and I were young would still seem good in the cold light of maturity. It turns out, though, that The View from Pompey's Head is a novel of Southern manners to rank with, if not above, the work of Ellen Glasgow, and a consideration of Southern social stratification worthy of Howard W. Odom or W.J. Cash; to make matters all the happier, it is also a terrifically entertaining piece of fiction offering all the essential ingredients -- plot, people, place -- without which a novel is sapped of vitality and meaning.
THE MAN who returns to the South Carolina coastal city of Pompey's Head is Anson Page, a 39-year-old attorney who has been sent to his home town on a delicate mission: The wife of an aging, blinded novelist named Garvin Wales has accused his former editor, now dead, of embezzling $20,000 of his royalties; the disappearance of the money is not in question but the reason for it is, and this Page has been asked by Wales' publisher to explore. In and of itself this aspect of the story is both interesting and gripping -- along the way it permits Basso to demonstrate that he knows an impressive amount about both publishing and the law -- but it is really only the springboard from which Basso goes on to the novel's larger concerns.
These have to do with the South in which Page was raised and to which he returns as both native and outsider. Like so many American novels, The View from Pompey's Head is about "home," that place from which we have fled and to which we long to return, the place we know has shaped our lives even as we strive to rise above its narrowness and rigidity. It is about the familiar become unfamiliar: "Everything was the same and nothing was the same. It was like returning to a house you had rented to strangers and coming upon the changes they had made -- it was the same house and the same rooms, and the clock in the hall had the same measured tick, but some of the furniture had been rearranged and the pictures were hung differently, and there was the lingering presence of alien shapes that made the house theirs, not yours."
As he comes home to Pompey's Head, Page believes that he left it a decade and a half ago because he had been spurned by Kit Robbins, the woman he had loved who "had hurt him beyond all bearing," but as he explores the matter of Garvin Wales he gradually comes to realize that there was much more to his departure than that. He learns that like everyone else in the town he had become a prisoner of the "ready-ade identity" it provided him, and that when that identity -- "his gentility" -- was called into question, he had to run away: not only from Kit Robbins, but from Pompey's Head, from "the unreality, the moonlight-and-magnolia dream." It is a discovery that teaches him a great deal not merely about the town he has left -- the town to which he can never return, though he has powerful reason to do so -- but also about himself and the influences that control his life.
These are not new themes in American literature by any means, but they have rarely been explored with greater intelligence or sensitivity than in The View from Pompey's Head. It is a rich, satisfying book in which you will not find a single false character or a glimmer of preening self-satisfaction. It is fiction such as we see all too rarely these days, which is all the more reason to be grateful that it has been given back to us.