Monday, October 27, 2014

The View from Pompey's Head by Hamilton Basso

The View from Pompey's Head
by Hamilton Basso
1954
1955 National Book Award Runner Up
**
2 stars - um, hello?
ALR Blue - nope, no animals


*** WARNING ***
CONTAINS SPOILERS

Well, ugh. Dated doesn't begin to describe this book. Let's start with the basics, shall we?

Anson Page is a New York City lawyer who specializes in the publishing industry. He's called upon to figure out if there is merit to a lawsuit brought by the wife of a prolific author alleging that the (now deceased) editor had siphoned off $20,000 (that's about $175,000 today) of royalties. Said author is now blind and living on a small island off the coast of Georgia. Said wife rules his world and allows no access to her husband. 

The publishing house calls on Anson to go to Georgia and get the real story and try and spare the publishing house from paying out and being scandalized by having a dead editor who was also a thief. Why Anson? Because he grew up in Pompey's Head and getting through to Mr. Big Author is going to require an insider who can negotiate the social waters of the south. 

Well, seems that our pal, Anson, hasn't returned to his home town in 15 years. Yup, got the heck out of Dodge and never looked back. Why is that? Hmmm... therein lies a tale.

Listen, I was all over this book for the first 200 pages or so. I liked the way it kind of meandered between past and present as Anson's arrival in Pompey's Head caused all sorts of memories to be stirred up. In fact, the big mystery of the money theft was pretty much sidelined as the author dedicated page after page to tales of the old south. No problem.

Where things started to fade was when Anson's musings entered into his young adulthood. Suddenly, he's hyper focused on meeting the right girl and observing the sensibilities and gentile manners of his hometown (which prohibit certain behaviors and even thoughts). 

So now you're thinking, "Hey, that's for real and a serious topic." Hey, I'm with you. However stylistically, what begin as a lyrical journey through life quickly succumbed to the sterile, stilted story telling that was so common in the 50's. Everything is so white washed that it becomes an agony for the reader. 

And it gets worse. Anson discovers that he is really in love with the hapless Dinah, who was just a teenager when he left town. Of course she is in a loveless marriage, has always loved him, blah, blah, blah, and, well, here, how about this dialog as Dinah and Anson (a.k.a. Sonny) discuss lunch plans?

"No, I won't. It wouldn't only be lunch, and you know it. If I should see you today, alone -- "
"Oh, Sonny, why -- "
"Let's not ask why, Dinah. It's too late for whys."

Queue swelling violin music, pan camera back to show hopeless couple under the shadow of Pompey's Head. Ugh, barf.

Once Dinah made her entrance, everything unraveled. 

Now then, how could this possibly have been shortlisted for the National Book Award? My guess is because of the themes of the book (however syrupy the exploration). Throughout, people are being hamstrung by class prejudice. Seems that where you live and who your ancestors were pretty much dictates your life. Um, yup, that's been true for a while and it really stinks. 

But, wait, what about that whole embezzlement thing? Oh, I almost forgot (as, I fear, did the author) because it isn't until the last 20 pages or so of this leaden 400+ page tome that the big reveal happens. Apparently Mr. Author's mother was black. Yup, albeit white enough to pass. The payments were to take care of her until she died. Well, well, well. 

I'm not trying to dismiss the import of this discovery nor the tragedy of knowing that if Mr. Author's parentage were revealed, all would be lost. However, Mr. Boss makes little of the whole thing. In fact it only gets as much attention as required to state the facts. Done and dusted. Meanwhile, we are bludgeoned with more smarmy stuff between Anson and Dinah. So much so that one is relieved when Anson finally boards the train home to NYC, yup, he leaves her to her hollow marriage and returns to his, because what is true love compared to honor after all?


1 comment:

  1. I read a Kindle book a while back which was set in Virginia in the late 1950s and dealt with the race/class issues. But it was straight up about those themes, which was refreshing, without the lovey/dovey crap overlaid. If you want to write about unrequited love, do so. Don't hijack another book for that. Too bad; this did sound promising.

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