Sunday, October 16, 2011

Adam Haslett writes a chilling diagnosis of our moment in history.

I am not sure how this book appeared on my shelf, but I only imagine that I read a rave review, which indeed it deserves, and then picked it up to see for myself. Glad I did.

Union Atlantic

Adam Haslett’s first full-length novel, Union Atlantic (354 pages, Anchor, $15) concerns several different characters in early twenty-first century New York and New England.

Henry Graves, a senior director of the Federal Reserve in New York, seems to live at cross purposes with his sister Charlotte, who lives in northern Massachusetts in a house that she and Henry grew up in. Their strict Presbyterian father instilled strong convictions in them both, but while Charlotte seems ready to shout hers from the rooftop—and is more than ready to take on a wealthy neighbor who builds a hideous McMansion on land that her family used to own—Henry seems more concerned with settling for the kind of public service that works quietly at the highest levels.

They are brought together, for better and worse, through the actions of several different characters. First, there is Doug Fanning. We first see Doug when he pulls the trigger on a destroyer off the coast of Bahrain and brings down an Iranian passenger jet with hundreds aboard. That experience shakes him; but he ran off to the navy when he couldn’t stand his mother’s drinking, and now he seems ready for anything. When we next meet him, he is high up in Union Atlantic, a banking conglomerate that has gotten caught up in wheeling and dealing in a way that he enjoys and seems more than capable of handling.

Doug also happens to be the wealthy banker who is building the mansion next to Charlotte. She has nothing but contempt for the man, but her contempt takes the form of suing the town, who she says had no right to sell that land that her grandfather had left to the town. While she fights this battle, she deals with two enormous dogs, who she imagines speak to her in the distinctive tongues of an early New England preacher and a black activist of the sixties. Their voices are enormously entertaining, but it does become worrying when it turns out that she is listening to them.

Meanwhile, Charlotte--a former high school History teacher who was forced into early retirement because she was such a rabble-rouser, or, as she puts it, she told her students the truth—takes up a feckless local boy called Nate and tries to prepare him for AP exams in History. Nate is taken with Charlotte, and he enjoys his sessions with her, even if he has a bit of ironic distance about some of her craziness.

Nate also meets Doug, Charlotte’s neighbor, and he cannot help falling for the handsome guy and the amazingly wealthy trappings that he seems to offer. Doug does not really know what to do with Nate when he meets him, but it isn’t long before he is taking advantage of him. And in sex scenes that are as sad as they are ruthless, he takes his pleasure and let’s the younger boy fill in the scene with fantasies that he will later hold up with contempt.

There are two huge climaxes in the tale. The first is the courtroom drama in which Charlotte Graves tries to take on the establishment and claim rights of ownership over the land on which Doug’s mansion sits. The second concerns the exposure of Doug’s firm's loosey-goosey investments that threaten to bring down an entire financial system.

Haslett writes about both these events compellingly, and it's remarkable to say that in spite of the depressing material he is writing about, the novel almost seems hopeful in various ways. I cannot spell these out without ruining the plot, and I have no compunction in telling you to stick with the novel. It is worth it in the end. I hardly need to say that, though. This book is nearly impossible to put down.

Adam Haslett

Union Atlantic is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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