UNION ATLANTIC by Adam Haslett

Book Quote:

“They’ve got business in a hundred countries. Counterparties up and down the food chain. They’re ten percent of the municipal bond market. They’ve got more credit cards than Chase. And they’re overweighted in mortgage securities. They’re the definition of systemic risk. And we’re barely out of a recession. It’d be malpractice to let them fail.”

Book Review:

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)’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 “if they did they wouldn’t want to read about it in a novel.” He needn’t have worried. After all, life—in this case sadly—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 bank’s CEO, Jack Holland.

Interestingly Fanning’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 people’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 grandfather’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 country’s spirit. “The 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,” 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, Doug’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 Charlotte’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 bank’s collapse briskly and well. The factual details for the deals and exchanges get a little confusing at times, but it’s not a problem. You begin to realize that the finer details don’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 character’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 “something a knight might drink from.” Only a teen would think that.

The one weak link in the novel is Nate. As great as his character is, I didn’t quite get what purpose his narrative served. If it was to show Doug’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 there—only serving to augment one narrative of another character’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 won’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 novel’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 “in their bootless, liberal refinement would judge him and all he’d done as the enemy of the good and the just.” But, he argues, these same people’s “high-minded opinions” were “just decoration for a different pattern of consumption.” You totally see his point.

It is to Haslett’s enormous credit that by the end of Union Atlantic, one can at least see what Doug Fanning’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: stars-4-0from 45 readers
PUBLISHER: Nan A. Talese; 1 edition (February 9, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

You Are Not A Stranger Here

Another prescient novel about money:

Human Capital by Steve Amidon


February 9, 2010 · Judi Clark · 9 Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Contemporary, Debut Novel, NE & New York, y Award Winning Author

9 Responses

  1. Kirstin - February 10, 2010

    Poornima, it is nice to read a review that actually likes this book. I’m afraid I can’t count myself in that group. I had high hopes when I read the advance summary, but when I actually read the novel and became familiar with the characters, I found myself hard-pressed to have any sympathy for anyone, except perhaps Henry. To me, this seems a study of addiction to various things, and I found it difficult to enjoy the book when the characters were so unrelentingly themselves and pursuing those addictions.

  2. poornima - February 10, 2010

    I definitely thought it was well-done even if it would not go on my best of the year list–it needs more heft for it to. I did see a couple of good and bad reviews of the book so yes, it’s interesting to see people’s takes on it.

    After all the news headlines, I imagined it would be very easy to hate Doug Fanning and I very often did. But I do believe that at the end, he comes across as a person with his own motivations. Sure those motivations are greed and avarice but he definitely didn’t come across as caricature–not to me.

  3. Judi Clark - February 17, 2010

    I decided to give UNION ATLANTIC a read to see what side I came out on…. I’m only one third of the way through, but so far I am liking it very much. Poornima, describing it as a “snapshot of our times” seems quite accurate to me — and the writing is superb. So far, I am not bothered by the nature of the characters, as it is one of the reasons the reasons I read is to get under the skin of others. At this point, I’m just curious about how it will work itself out, and of course, knowing the sequence of real events in the last decade, makes this fiction all the more interesting. I’ll comment again when I get to the end.

  4. Kirstin - March 3, 2010

    Hi, Judi~

    So, what did you decide in the end? I’m dying to know whether you continued to like it as much or whether your views of the characters changed (soured?) and whether the conclusion met with your approval….

  5. Judi Clark - March 3, 2010

    Hi Kirstin… I’ve been composing my thoughts on this book (in my head) as I re-read the book again and was going to wait until I finished this second time before I responded. But since you are asking….

    I think this will become one of my top reads for the year. I like the book a lot.. I like how Haslett has chronicled the times. I don’t like much about our current state so I guess I don’t expect to like the people that have made the decisions to get us here. So for me it is neither here nor there that I like these characters. But I do feel for them. And I do find the story compelling… even the second time. There are so many thoughts and observations that are so spot on. I will say that I do seem to have more sympathy for the characters on the second read than I did on the first. Especially Charlotte. I see just how off-center she is. But I also see her as a metaphor for the liberals/democrats.

    But you ask if the conclusion meets with my approval.. and that I don’t have an answer for yet. I mean I don’t like that Doug has an out but I do find it credible – why wouldn’t he have a way out? What I’m still struggling with the meaning of his last dreams involving both Nate and his mother — and thus I’m reading their whole relationship much more closely this second time. But let me finish the second read and I’ll answer this question again. If I get real ambitious I’ll write a review.

  6. Judi Clark - March 5, 2010

    O.K. I have finished the book for the second time. Kirstin, I think you are asking about the mission that Doug is on and what I make of this last sentence of the book:

    “There were documents a computer in the offices of the oil depot at Umm Qasr and someone wanted them secured.”

    Now that I’m at the end again, I realize that one motivation for re-reading was to make sense of this ending! My guess is that the papers might have something to do with Prince Abdul-Aziz Hafar’s visit to New York during the private bailout of Union Atlantic. Maybe, it was to make sure that the Iraqi involvement in our banking system remained unknown?

    What do you think?

  7. Kirstin - March 6, 2010

    Yes, or U.S. involvement in the Iraqi banking system; internationalism in banking makes both likely. Also, as intimated in the novel, Umm Qasr was the post city where the Iraq War began in 2003. I wonder whether there was any chance that Doug might have been captured by American forces. Or maybe they just thought he was CIA and left him alone. Probably, he slipped in and out before hostilities really got going. There was a report of Iraqis destroying an oil depot, but I’m not sure that was confirmed; if they did, were we supposed to wonder whether Doug didn’t make it? But mainly, you are probably right that the reason for mentioning Umm Qasr had to do with potential financial fallout.

    Are you still thinking of writing a review, Judi? It would be great to read more detail about your thoughts on this complex novel.

  8. poornima - March 9, 2010

    Wow — you guys have really been at it! I didn’t realize there was so much back-and-forth on this one :) I got the impression from the conclusion that Doug (once again) missed the punishing actions and slipped out before things heated up. But I should re-read the book – maybe I have missed some nuance buried in there!

    I get the feeling that I liked the book a lot more than Kirstin did but less than Judi. I didn’t think anybody soured as the action went along–I just thought it all made more sense (you could see where everyone was coming from). Even if people are nasty, as long as I can understand where they’re coming from, I’m okay with it.

    Judi, you’re right about Charlotte — at times I felt like she was giving voice to my thoughts!! :)


  9. Judi Clark - March 10, 2010

    Oh, Kirstin. I’ll probably not write the review since I have 3 books assigned to myself that I haven’t yet done.

    Huh… I never thought of Doug not making it. More likely it is as Poornima says, that Doug made it in and out without consequence, again.

    The ending is quite interesting because there is a lot to wonder about. Not just Doug’s involvement with Umm Qasr, but with his dreams and sightings of Nate.

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