UNION ATLANTIC by Adam Haslett
â€śTheyâ€™ve got business in a hundred countries. Counterparties up and down the food chain. Theyâ€™re ten percent of the municipal bond market. Theyâ€™ve got more credit cards than Chase. And theyâ€™re overweighted in mortgage securities. Theyâ€™re the definition of systemic risk. And weâ€™re barely out of a recession. Itâ€™d be malpractice to let them fail.â€ť
Review by Poornima Apte (FEB 9, 2010)
After reading Union Atlantic, one fact becomes increasingly obvious: Adam Haslett is one heck of a talented writer. But what might not be that obvious is that he is also prescient. His gripping novel essentially revolves around a large fictional bank (Union Atlantic)â€™s spectacular failure. Get this: Haslett completed it the week that a real-life bank, Lehman Brothers, collapsed.
Haslett has said that while writing Union Atlantic, he worried that no one would know what the Federal Reserve was, or â€śif they did they wouldnâ€™t want to read about it in a novel.â€ť He neednâ€™t have worried. After all, lifeâ€”in this case sadlyâ€”imitates art.
Doug Fanning, a young and aggressive banker is one of the higher-ups in Union Atlantic, a bank in Boston. A child of a single, alcoholic mother, who worked as a cleaning lady to support her son, Fanning leaves home abruptly one day to join the navy. After a brief but life-defining stint in the Middle East, Fanning leaves the navy and makes a meteoric rise to the upper ranks of Union Atlantic. Even early on, he is never shy of wearing his ruthless ambition on his sleeve, a quality that wins him a spot as a special favorite of the bankâ€™s CEO, Jack Holland.
Interestingly Fanningâ€™s ambition (and his emotional vulnerability) even shows up in his decision to build a mansion in Finden, a posh suburb in Western Massachusetts. His mother once drove to the same town to clean rich peopleâ€™s homes here. He builds a gorgeous, state-of-the-art mansion on a beautiful patch of land. There is one problem however. His neighbor, Charlotte Graves, claims the land was sold to him illegally and that it belongs to her grandfatherâ€™s trust. She is determined to have her day in court and have the eyesore removed from the land she is so deeply attached to.
Once a history teacher in the local high school, Charlotte now spends her days with her two dogs, lamenting the slow decline of the American character and the countryâ€™s spirit. â€śThe house was merely the furthest and most galling advance of the much larger intrusion, the one that had begun decades ago, first at a distance, a sighting here or there, a fancy stroller in the library stacks, a concern for caloric totals voiced over the meat counter,â€ť she thinks. A staunch liberal, Charlotte abhors the kind of greed and avarice Doug seems to personify.
Also in town is Nate, a teen drifter trying to finish school. He signs up for tutoring lessons with Charlotte and instead listens to her rant endlessly about the America that she knows is lost. In Nate, Charlotte sees her lover Eric, who died very young from a drug overdose. Over the course of many weeks, Nate also gets to know Doug and develops a crush on him.
Back at work, Dougâ€™s shenanigans with reckless money bets slowly begin to take a toll on Union Atlantic to the point where it comes to the attention of the head of the New York Federal Reserve, Henry Graves. Henry, as it turns out, is Charlotteâ€™s brother. As the fiscal crisis grows, he increasingly plays a role in trying to tie all the knots together and keep the system afloat.
Haslett has said that he has been fascinated by the idea of the anonymous power that the Fed exercised and wanted to write about it. Union Atlantic tells the story of the bankâ€™s collapse briskly and well. The factual details for the deals and exchanges get a little confusing at times, but itâ€™s not a problem. You begin to realize that the finer details donâ€™t matter as much as the fact that crimes are being committed here. Haslett keeps the pace moving trying to explain the details of the financial malfeasance as best as he can.
Haslett does an excellent job narrating the story from each characterâ€™s point of view. Small details are taken care of. For example, when Charlotte fills a pewter tankard with water and hands it to Nate, he says to himself the vessel looked like â€śsomething a knight might drink from.â€ť Only a teen would think that.
The one weak link in the novel is Nate. As great as his character is, I didnâ€™t quite get what purpose his narrative served. If it was to show Dougâ€™s emotional complexities, as he gets increasingly involved in a precarious relationship, it serves its purpose. But often, Nate feels like a prop in the story, not fully thereâ€”only serving to augment one narrative of another characterâ€™s personality.
All in all though, Union Atlantic is one great read. Haslett has said that he hopes readers will not look at Doug as simply a stand-in for the avarice of the age. They probably wonâ€™t. But the entire novel, with its portrayal of small-town politics, corporate greed and the sad decline of American liberalism definitely feels like an accurate snapshot of our times.
Perhaps the novelâ€™s biggest achievement is that it is so enjoyable despite the protagonist being such an unlikeable figure. Writing powerful stories where the reader can easily sympathize with the central character is what most fiction is made of. But it requires real talent to craft an absorbing story when the protagonist is so hard to like. When Doug once resents being judged, he says he could see that people â€śin their bootless, liberal refinement would judge him and all heâ€™d done as the enemy of the good and the just.â€ť But, he argues, these same peopleâ€™s â€śhigh-minded opinionsâ€ť were â€śjust decoration for a different pattern of consumption.â€ť You totally see his point.
It is to Haslettâ€™s enormous credit that by the end of Union Atlantic, one can at least see what Doug Fanningâ€™s motives are and feel badly for the smothering solitude he endures. Yes, one can argue that much of it is his own doing but you almost begin to like the guy. Almost. And that is an achievement that alone makes Union Atlantic such a fantastic and engrossing read.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 45 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Nan A. Talese; 1 edition (February 9, 2010)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Adam Haslett|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:
Another prescient novel about money:
Human Capital by Steve Amidon
February 9, 2010
Â· Judi Clark Â· 9 Comments
Tags: Bankruptcy, Boston, Greed & Corruption, Job-centered, Money Â· Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Contemporary, Debut Novel, NE & New York, y Award Winning Author