By Adam Haslett
Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, $26, 320 pages
REVIEWED BY CLAIRE HOPLEY
In 2008, brokerages skidded into bankruptcy, banks teetered on collapse, financial rogues lost their cover, and thousands and thousands of ordinary people lost their homes, their jobs, their cars and their credit ratings. Acres of paper have been spent explaining the domino problems that clattered us into this impasse. But nothing grasps at its causes as powerfully as Adam Haslett’s first novel, “Union Atlantic,” which gives the whole sorry, sprawling mess a local habitation and a name - or, rather, several names.
Chief among them is Doug Fanning, who masterminded the expansion of Union Atlantic, a Boston-based bank that scooped up other institutions to become a financial-services conglomerate. Doug’s inventive interpretations of banking regulations lit the way to the profits that built Union Atlantic’s skyscraper headquarters in Boston and Doug’s own new “casino of a house” in Finden, an old and pretty town nearby. The house lacks furniture and people because Doug occupies it only a few hours a day. Its role is to “make the envying types envious.”
Doug knows about envy. He grew up with his single mother in the neighboring but seedier town of Alden. He joined the Navy and was on the USS Vincennes when it shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft on a routine flight, killing the 290 people on board. All he wanted was to get out and go to school to learn about finance. He has made good.
Or he has made bad, if you look at it from the point of view of his neighbor, Charlotte Graves. An elderly former history teacher, she lives alone in her family home with two dogs. Her grandfather gave Finden the land on which Doug’s house is built. Outraged at the sale and at Doug’s monster mansion, she sues the town for the return of the land. Crazy lady, thinks Doug - as do many townspeople. Even Charlotte’s dogs chide her, one in the tones of her Puritan forebears, one in the tones of Malcolm X. She agrees with them that things have fallen apart in America. Her suit against the town is her way of making a stand.
But the threatened loss of the property is becoming the least of Doug’s worries. It’s 2002, and he has been feeding McTeague, his trader in Asia, huge amounts of money to place bets on the Nikkei going higher. The profits had been massive, but now they are moving the other way, and McTeague needs even bigger mountains of money to cover his trades. Things unravel fast, and soon Henry Graves, head of the New York Federal Reserve and incidentally Charlotte’s brother, learns that the sums involved will bankrupt Union Atlantic and destabilize the American banking system. With the power of the Federal Reserve system at his command, he uses it to end Union Atlantic’s helter-skelter ride.
Henry has an intellectual life and the imagination to see the millions of personal disasters that would occur if Union Atlantic failed. Charlotte shares his sense of the communal good, though her range of operation is frustratingly symbolic. In contrast to their traditional sense of responsibility, Doug Fanning wants - needs - to feel the force of his own power.
As Union Atlantic’s earnings soar, “It satisfied him a great deal. Not because of the likely size of his bonus … The execution was what gratified him. The focus and precision and directedness of his will. At such times his churning mind turned lucid. … He felt then like the living wonder of the most advanced machine, as if he’d been freed of all organic hindrance to glide on the plain of pure efficiency. A place of relief, even peace.”
There’s a generational difference between the Graveses and Doug, his boss Jeffrey Holland, and McTeague, “a rabid Bruins fan whose conversation didn’t extend much beyond hockey and derivatives.” There’s another generational difference between 37-year-old Doug and Nate, a high school senior who is getting history tuition from Charlotte. Their hours together give Mr. Haslett the chance to sketch in America’s past as Charlotte perorates on its glories and tragedies.
It also lets him show Nate wandering curiously into Doug’s house and eventually into his bed, where he becomes another object of Doug’s will. Why? A simplistic answer is that he is fatherless and needs some older male in his life. More interestingly, Mr. Haslett shows him hanging out with friends who don’t really know what to do with themselves and so relying on drugs for amusement.
This dire picture of moral decline over the generations is one of the compelling stories in Union Atlantic. The other is simply Mr. Haslett’s lucid descriptions of the daily workings of the financial markets. Much of this reads as clear nonfictional exposition, and thank goodness for that in a world when much financial and economic writing is so arcane. But what keeps readers riveted are the characterizations of the people who make the banking world turn.
Doug Fanning and his boss, Jeffrey Holland, march from the page with the all the aplomb of the suits that stride Wall Street and Boston’s financial district. Equally, people like Nate and his pals and Charlotte Graves can be found in any small Massachusetts town. Probably Charlotte’s dogs, too. They are lovably convincing.
“Union Atlantic” thus opens the door on the financial world in a way that’s only possible in fiction. It was largely written before the events of late 2008, with whose effects we are now living, yet its specificity and sense of human will clarifies what happened - not just in 2008, but in the preceding decades - that brought us to this pass. This is an extraordinarily impressive first novel.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.