HADRIAN'S WALLS

By Robert Draper

Knopf. 326 pp. $23

The English critic V.S. Pritchett once observed that the power of the peculiar nostalgia flooding American literature lies in the way it not only looks back at an irrecoverable past but also foresees the tragedy of a lost future. This split-vision yearning runs through regional literature especially, where nostalgia seems to find its richest soil. It certainly runs through this gutsy first novel, which is set deep in the heart of East Texas, and not at the edges of the Roman Empire as the title suggests.

A Bildungsroman about friendship, betrayal and retribution, among other nostalgic themes, "Hadrian's Walls" throbs with a sense of loss: loss known and loss foreseen. Hadrian is a recently pardoned ex-con returning to his hometown of Shepherdsville after eight years as a vagrant on the lam. (Before that, he'd spent 15 years as an inmate of the state penitentiary.) Originally charged with murder committed in defense of his best friend, Sonny, Hadrian is just about to end his long prison term when he is attacked by a jealous inmate and commits his second murder. Rather than endure the thwarting of his long-awaited freedom, Hadrian decides to make a break--and succeeds.

His escape from Hope Farm Penitentiary is the first in its history: a Houdini-like triumph over legendary security, unerring guard dogs and inimical terrain. Now, eight years later, Hadrian has come out of hiding. A governor's pardon has been granted because of an inmate's deathbed confession exonerating him. The question in Hadrian's mind as he returns to his hometown, part-hero, part-outlaw, is whether his old friend Sonny, now the new prison director, was responsible for secretly enabling his escape from prison, and also for staging the deathbed "confession."

In the three weeks following his homecoming, the past unfolds in a series of dramatic--and often melodramatic--disclosures, bringing down the walls for Hadrian in more ways than one. He sees the corrupt penal system from the outside, his own innocence from the inside, and straight through the soul of his long-idolized friend Sonny. "Hadrian's Walls" is an old-fashioned novel in almost every sense. There is a story with a plot, and a meaty one, too. There are characters and situations that command our sympathy and attention. There are conjunctions of eternal opposites: good and evil, chance and necessity, courage and cowardice, etc. There is morality with a capital M, outrage with a capital O, and that other peculiarly American pairing: of sentimentality and violence. Last but not least there is good solid information about the workings of a particular world.

The world in this case is a community whose sole business is the building and running of prisons for the Texas Department of Criminal Retribution. "Over a five-year period," brags the prison director, "we built more prisons in Texas than at any other time in the recorded history of the free world." But the world is changing too fast even for this new breed of prison director on the take. Now there are balance sheets to deal with, along with charges of bribery and contract-fixing, and inmate writers, and gang tattoos, and new uniform guidelines prompted by a correctional officer's sex change . . . and, worse, the threat of competition. A career criminal turned businessman is fixing to build a whole new prison town called Trust, to rival Shepherdsville! In capturing this gritty world, the author, a former Texas Monthly reporter, seems favored with a native's eye for native failings, a folklorist's ear for speech and a journalist's nose for secrets.

Notwithstanding this achievement, there is a flaw at the core of "Hadrian's Walls," and it nags. Here is a self-portrait of a violent killer, but a guy too decent and sincere, too aware of moral choices and their consequences, to have plausibly committed the crimes he describes. This renders the two signature acts of his life (not to mention the circumstances surrounding them) improbable from start to finish.

Most improbable of all: When the opportunity arises at last, why would Hadrian refrain from breaking Sonny's sorry little neck? Yes, yes, I know: redemption. But could the answer to the above just be plain old American sentimentality--that warm and fuzzy flip side to plain old American violence? As they say in East Texas, I lay you what: It is.

Wendy Law-Yone, whose most recent novel is "Irrawaddy Tango"