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Union Atlantic


Union Atlantic

The challenge facing even the most ambitious author who chooses
to write a novel focusing on chicanery in the world of modern
finance lies in making his story as compelling as the real-life
events that swirl around us. In his first novel, Adam Haslett,
author of the widely-praised short story collection YOU ARE NOT A
STRANGER HERE, has solved that problem admirably by blending a
handful of richly-realized characters with an energetic and
sophisticated plot to create a world, in Hemingway’s
characterization of the best fiction, that’s “truer
than what really happened.”

Haslett has set his novel in 2002, a year that serves in
hindsight as a pivot point in American history. The country still
reels from 9/11’s body blow and is gearing up for a war with
Iraq that’s distant but seemingly inevitable. We’ve
weathered the dotcom bust, but the first hints of the financial
adventurism that will culminate in the meltdown of 2008 are seen,
if only dimly perhaps, on the horizon. By this time, Haslett
implies, we’re already nearing the cliff’s edge,
rumbling headlong toward catastrophe.

UNION ATLANTIC turns on two central conflicts. At the center of
both is Doug Fanning, an ambitious young commercial banking
executive, “an attractive weapon” who “worked
best with the men who understood implicitly the balance of
excitement, ignorance, and reward he offered.” Doug’s
job is to superintend the bank’s aggressive expansion. When
he builds a sprawling mansion (“a casino of a house,”
as he describes it) in the Boston suburb of Finden, he’s
confronted by his next-door neighbor Charlotte Graves, a high
school history teacher involuntarily retired after 40 years who is
determined to eradicate the structure she dismisses as a
“steroidal offense.” Representing herself in a lawsuit
against Finden’s town government, she challenges the decision
to sell Fanning land deeded by her family in trust for public
purposes. Charlotte’s younger brother Henry, president of the
New York Federal Reserve, is called upon to deal not only with his
sister’s increasing eccentricity (she believes her Doberman
and mastiff are speaking to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and
Malcolm X, for starters) but also ultimately with the consequences
of Fanning’s financial adventurism.

Throughout an uneasy summer, Charlotte serves as a history tutor
to Finden teenager Nate Fuller. Nate, who “still possessed
the changeable quality of the young, his affect shifting quickly
from moroseness to affability and back,” becomes a pawn in
the war between Charlotte and Doug. Fatherless, like Doug, he
becomes infatuated with the older man’s power and drive, yet
is entranced by Charlotte’s rambling historical rants whose
relevance to his studies becomes even more tangential as their
sessions wear on.

Fanning longs to be “an artist of the consequential
world,” but as the financial dealings that threaten to
destroy him unravel, the pressure of Charlotte’s litigation
takes on the character of a Greek chorus. Voicing her motivation to
her brother, Charlotte asks whether he “can honestly say that
the intrusion of that house, the cutting down of those woods,
whoever they might have belonged to once, doesn’t stand for
something, for a rot more pervasive. And then tell me I’m
wrong to want to take a stand. You can’t.”

Haslett easily could have padded out this novel by a hundred or
more pages by offering extraneous detail on Doug’s financial
scheming or by turning Charlotte’s case into a Dickensian
slog through the labyrinth of the legal system. Instead (and in a
way that’s one of the great strengths of the novel), he opts
for a spare, almost impressionistic style that’s especially
effective in illuminating the motivations of his characters.
Charlotte and Doug’s legal battle is epitomized by one
raucous courtroom scene; the tenuousness of Doug’s financial
empire is summed up in a few terse phone calls with a rogue trader
in Hong Kong; and the lifestyle excesses of the time are symbolized
by a lavish Fourth of July party that lurches from catastrophe to

Shorn of preaching or lecturing, Adam Haslett has given us a
modern morality play, pitting history against change, the
propulsive drive of free market capitalism against the unyielding
demands of personal ethics. “Can you trust the pulse of life
without becoming Mr. Fanning? Charlotte challenges Nate.
“Because he is the future. One way or the other. His kind of
rapaciousness, it doesn’t end. It just bides its time.”
There are winners and losers when UNION ATLANTIC ends, but in the
struggles so effectively portrayed here, we feel there are no
permanent victories or defeats. Perhaps it’s too early to
anoint Haslett with the label of his generation’s Cheever or
Updike, but it’s easy to imagine them nodding approvingly as
they read this fine novel.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg ( on April 26, 2011

Union Atlantic
by Adam Haslett

  • Publication Date: February 8, 2011
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0307388298
  • ISBN-13: 9780307388292