Meanwhile, Charlotte’s brother, Henry Fanning, the president of the Federal Reserve, is battling to prevent fraudulent trading by Doug’s bank from tipping the economy into meltdown. The fourth main character in Adam Haslett’s debut novel is teenager Nate, a former pupil of Charlotte’s who comes to her for extra-curricular tutoring, and who develops a crush on Doug.
UNION ATLANTIC is Adam Haslett’s debut novel. He has previously published a collection of short stories entitled YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE (2003). The collection dealt mainly with mental illness, depression and closet homosexuality.
Some of those themes are amplified here. Charlotte, for example, suffers from borderline dementia, and has long, rambling conversations with her pair of dogs, a mastiff called Sam and a Doberman called Wilkie.
It’s also possible to argue that all the characters are suffering from some kind of depression that varies in terms of its severity. Henry is still experiencing the grief that came with the death of his wife some years ago. Meanwhile, Doug and Nate embark on a physical relationship, Nate as a result of his crush on Doug, Doug because he finds it convenient to have sex with Nate.
What’s at stake in UNION ATLANTIC is no less that the soul of America itself. Charlotte Graves represents all that America aspires to be as she rigorously questions the status quo and puts herself and what remains of her reputation on the line for the sake of intellectual progress and an unshakeable belief in the rightness of time-honoured values.
When ‘the town’ explains that they had to put the parcel of land Doug eventually builds on because their annual budget is under-funded, Charlotte rages in an internal monologue:
“The referendum for school funding had failed at the polls and they had to look to their assets. Never mind the breach of faith. Never mind the lobotomized, negligent short-termism of it all, as if a one-time windfall could ever fund an annual expenditure. What had government become these days but the poorly advertised fire sale of the public interest?”Doug Fanning represents the brash, pioneer spirit, which is here depicted as the rapacious greed for money, his nouveau riche trappings and short-term ambitions in sharp contrast to the genteel old money represented by Charlotte, even if the ‘old money’ she represents has been hollowed out over time to leave little more than the shell of the once impressive house that now crumbles around her.
Henry Graves is the philosophical fulcrum of the piece. As a Graves, he is a scion of old money, and sympathetic to Charlotte’s campaign; as president of the Federal Reserve, he is the invisible hand that regulates the often chaotic flow of capital upon which financial predators such as Doug Fanning depend. “Simply put, Henry Graves was in charge of the biggest pumping station in the plumbing of world finance. His most vital function was to keep money moving. To do it quickly. And, above all, to do it quietly.”
That Henry is the most sympathetically drawn character in the novel suggests that Haslett also sympathises with America’s financial plight, both domestically and internationally, the latter in its role as the world’s banker and honest broker. His theme is one of money as necessary evil, but an evil best regulated by a sober and alert conscience; hence the references to Roosevelt’s New Deal, and the manipulation of market forces that were required to drag America out of the Great Depression. The novel offers many parallels with 1930’s America, right down to the fact that there’s nothing like a good war to boost GDP, and goes so far as to suggest that that model is deliberately replayed again and again in a never-ending cycle of boom, bust and boom.
A prologue sets up Doug’s early life as a Marine, and the minor part he played in the shooting down of an Iranian passenger jet during the first Gulf War. The bulk of the novel, however, takes place in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a time when America was sandbagged not only by 9/11 but by the collapse of Enron, which threatened in turn to collapse the entire banking system in America. When a rogue trader operating on the Asian markets under Doug’s aegis leaves a five billion dollar hole in UNION ATLANTIC’s finances - a hole big enough to swallow the entire bank - the all too familiar story of the last number of years clicks into place.
Haslett writes in a pleasingly crisp, elegant style. The subject matter of high finance could have made for a dry and confusingly complex narrative, but in focusing on the flesh-and-blood elements in the machine he largely side-steps this potential hazard.
There is, perhaps, too much emphasis placed on maintaining the integrity of Charlotte’s internal monologues, which can render them dense and oblique for the reader, but for the most part Haslett’s prose is unflinchingly direct when it comes to getting to nub of his characters’ motivations. His skills as a short story writer are obvious too in the way he studs his narrative with poignant detail. By the same token, there’s no doubting that despite the conservative settings and characters, UNION ATLANTIC is unmistakably a liberal polemic in tone.
As Charlotte says to Doug:
“Because that matters more than anything to you, doesn’t it? Dominance. That’s the childish pleasure you people can’t get enough of. You get your fix dressed up in a suit, but it’s no different than a drug. You’re angry. And once the men like you start this war of theirs, people will die by the thousands to cure that feeling in them.”The fact that the former Marine Doug provides the downbeat climax to the novel by ‘enlisting’ as a mercenary and crossing the border from Kuwait into Iraq on the first day of the invasion of ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ gives the novel a pleasing symmetry, even if the metaphor feels unnecessarily overcooked.
All told, UNION ATLANTIC is a bracing tale of modern America, a pleasingly complex novel that boasts a populist but thoughtful brand of intellectual investigation of the forces that shape our world. Recommended. - Declan Burke
Adam Haslett's UNION ATLANTIC is published by Tuskar Rock.