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 day.
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 effect.
One can't help considering the two crumbling tunnels that supply New York City with all of its water. Let's hope there are many Attiliuses toiling away on Tunnel No. 3, to be completed in 2020. (Sip slowly, New Yorkers.)
In fact, what's even more interesting than the mechanical aspects of this ancient system are the moral developments that Harris traces through these characters. First-century Romans enjoyed the benefits of a remarkably advanced system of commerce, science, and art, but their society was dogged by that familiar triumvirate of corruption, cruelty, and sloth. Attilius emerges as a timeless hero, a man driven by duty but animated by compassion, courageous enough to fight nature, but wise enough to fear its fury. His struggle to solve this engineering crisis, fend off his mutinying workers, and resist the grief that always threatens to wash back over him makes him an utterly fascinating and sympathetic character. And though he's far removed from the sophisticated economy humming around him, he demonstrates that essential requirement for a successful market economy: integrity.
But in the literary tradition of all great struggles, the flashier part goes to the villain. Numerius Popidius Ampliatus rose from slave to master the modern way: insider trading. Cruel and clever, he's both Caligula and Ken Lay. We meet him on the afternoon he's trying to generate a little entertainment by feeding a servant to the eels. Attilius interferes, earning Ampliatus's rage and his daughter's heart. But this self-made crook owns a heavily mortgaged empire of bathhouses that need cheap water so he pretends to support Attilius's emergency efforts - at least until he can kill him.
Of course, while our hero races against the clock to stave off a collapse of the aqueduct and avoid being murdered, we know that his clock is about to be blasted away by one of history's most spectacular natural disasters. Harris marks the passing hours and minutes with fanciful precision at the beginning of each chapter, along with pithy quotations from volcano experts ancient and modern.
If the present-day dialogue sounds a bit incongruous in togas and the romance a bit forced, such minor objections are quickly blasted away. When the moment finally arrives - a column of magma shooting miles into the sky - the story rises spectacularly to convey the surreal conditions that tortured these people for days: the sea filled with pumice, the ground rolling in waves, whole towns flash-burned, asphyxiated, and then sealed beneath tons of ash.
But Harris hasn't brought those haunting, calcified forms to life just for the sport of entombing them again 2,000 years later. The light he shines on that awesome crisis, and the way good and bad people responded, illuminates our continued dependence on the most fundamental elements - a stable earth and a righteous man.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.