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Money Collides With History In 'Union Atlantic'

'Union Atlantic'
Union Atlantic
By Adam Haslett
Hardcover, 320 pages
Nan A. Talese
List price: $26

Read An Excerpt

The devaluation and degradation of values — monetary and moral, public and personal — are the focus of Adam Haslett's ambitious, energetic first novel, written with an urgent relevance more often found in newspapers or nonfiction than fiction. Haslett, a graduate of both the University of Iowa Writing Program and Yale Law School, scored the literary equivalent of a Wall Street bonus with his first book, the best-selling story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here, which was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He's aimed even higher with Union Atlantic, which takes on nothing less than our bankrupt culture with its "reign of endless display" and "general encroachment of money and waste."

Against a backdrop of financial wheelings and dealings in the year after Sept. 11, 2001, Haslett pits a rapacious 37-year-old banker against a reclusive, unhinged, retired history teacher, on whose ancestral land he has erected his tasteless "casino of a house." Haslett assembles his novel with stunning efficiency; like a literary go-kart perched on a narrative hill, just a slight push sets it rolling to its speedy denouement.

The banker, Doug Fanning, is an easy-to-despise Master-of-the-Universe type driven by resentment of his deprived childhood with an alcoholic single mother. From a stint in the Navy during the Gulf War, Doug learns fearlessness and survival at any cost, integrity be damned. This serves him well in banking, where he's been doing a "ferociously good job" expanding the Union Atlantic commercial bank in Boston by "brazenly" taking advantage of the free-for-all deregulated environment facilitated by the repeal of New Deal reforms. Haslett describes the house-of-cards world of trading on margin and questionably securitized mortgages with the fluency of Kai Ryssdal's Marketplace.

Adam Haslett's collection of stories, You Are Not a Stranger Here, was nominated for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Brigitte Lacombe hide caption

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Brigitte Lacombe

Adam Haslett's collection of stories, You Are Not a Stranger Here, was nominated for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Brigitte Lacombe

While Fanning's flameout seems as inevitable as a Greek tragedy's bloodbath, his neighbor Charlotte Graves' descent into madness is a more disturbing spectacle. Haslett imbues Graves with a just cause — fighting the fire sale (to Doug) of land her grandfather deeded for conservation — and a worried brother, who, rather contrivedly, is president of the New York Federal Reserve. Charlotte, who not only teaches history but embodies it, is haunted by an unlikely pair of ministers, Cotton Mather and Malcolm X, who harangue her — hilariously yet tediously — through an even unlikelier source: her two dogs, a mastiff and a Doberman.

The seeds of Charlotte's character can be traced back to Haslett's masterful debut collection, which also features an addled patrician woman haunted by a ghost from the past who disapproves of society's increasing decadence. Similarities between Haslett's stories and his new novel don't stop there: both involve mental illness, close brother-sister bonds, parents lost to suicide and homosexual initiations with a sadomasochistic edge. But in tackling big issues like the costs of power and ambition and the relationship between war and commerce, Haslett has, in a sense, taken his company public. Unfortunately, in order to trade on the Big Board, he has sacrificed some of the tenderness that made his stories so moving. Nevertheless, this is a writer who continues to yield rich dividends.

Excerpt: 'Union Atlantic'

Union Atlantic
Union Atlantic
By Adam Haslett
Hardcover, 320 pages
Nan A. Talese
List price: $26

Chapter 2

For months now Charlotte Graves had tried to avoid looking at the new place. And yet how could anyone's eyes not snare on the enormity of it? It had been designed to draw attention.

As she and the dogs came down the drive the following morning, it came into view once again: a hulking, white mass of a building, three full stories in the middle, with wings on either side and someone's idea of an orangery or sunroom protruding from the far end. A cupola the size of a small bandstand stood atop the pile, betwixt two fat, brick chimneys. A columned portico framed the enormous front door. Either side of this, along the front of the house, were yew shrubs set in beds of newly delivered wood chips. It looked, more than anything else, like a recently opened country club, and indeed the landscaping of the yard, with its empty flower beds cut from the imported turf like oval incisions on a piece of bright-green construction paper and its perfectly crosscut lawn running to the river's edge without so much as a transitional weed, reminded one of the manicure of a golf course. In line at the drugstore, Charlotte had overheard a real estate agent describing it as a Greek Revival chateau.

This was what had replaced the woods that Charlotte's grandfather had given to the town for preservation. This steroidal offense.

Over the last year, as it was being built, she had often reminded herself that 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. More recently had come the giant cars, the ones that looked as if they should have gun turrets mounted on their roofs, manned by the children glaring from the backseat. For years the news had made so much of bombings in the Middle East, and of course in dear old New York now as well, and of the birds of prey we released in retaliation but they never mentioned the eyes of the wealthy young and the violence simmering numbly there. She had seen it at school, the way her students had grown pointed, turned into swords wielded by their masters. As soon as she began speaking of such things openly the principal had gone to the retirement board and they had got rid of her. Nearly forty years of teaching history to the children of this town and they had hustled her out for speaking the truth.

With the Bennetts on one side of her and the woods on the other, Charlotte had always thought she would be safe from the worst of the intrusion. Her house, the old family place, was a redoubt of sorts. After all this time living in it, its memories were for her neither a comfort nor a haunting. They were simply the traces of beings with whom she shared the place. Time by herself had done that to Charlotte, slowly worn away the hard barrier of the self that had clenched against loneliness for so many years at the beginning but in the end lacked a source of power. Unfed by the barriers of others, social fear tended to wither. The membrane between herself and the world had begun to breathe. And while this gentle dissipation had put to rest the anxiety she'd endured in the earlier years, when still wed to the story of marriage, it had increasingly opened her to a more profound, if not exactly personal, terror. Say, for instance, not the thought but the unsought intuition of every soul at stake on the planet hour to hour. A thing not to be borne for more than a minute without destroying the integrity of her individual mind. So you let in just a few fates at a time, hoping the blinders would hold. With the dogs, she could just about manage. How comforting it turned out even their ornery presence could be when the dumb quantity of humanity pressed its case.

Before the mansion had been erected, there had been the chainsaws and backhoes, trees dragged like corpses to the road. Then the engines of the diggers, the cement mixers, the nail guns. She had stayed indoors, unable to watch. They removed so much earth, the angle of the land itself had changed. The maples they left along the top of the hill, from where she could now see all the way down to the river, did a poor job of hiding the new site even with the leaves out, and as fall had come round again the naked wood frame of the unfinished house had shown clearly through the bare branches.

As a teacher all these years, seeing for herself the small-mindedness of those who ran the town of Finden, Charlotte should have known it would come, that the town would betray the trust her grandfather had placed in it. Her father might have done something about it. A man with a bedrock faith in the law, he had prosecuted malfeasance to the last. Episcopalian by birth, Presbyterian by temperament, Quaker in abstention, secular to the bone. He would have found a way to stop these cretins. But not her younger brother, Henry. No. After a few brief discussions with the lawyer, Cott Jr., Henry had suggested that if Charlotte found it too much to bear, perhaps the time had come to sell the house and move somewhere, as he put it, more practical.

Thus it had been left to her to wage the battle. Naively, she had begun with an attempt to persuade, writing letters to the selectmen and the newspaper. When that produced nothing but a few polite replies, she'd begun gathering signatures outside the supermarket, informing people of the town's plans. Just a few years earlier, most people would have at least stopped and said hello. She had been their teacher, after all, or their children's teacher, or both. But now they looked upon her with pity.

Budgets were budgets, the town said. They regretted deeply the necessity of putting a parcel of land up for auction. But 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?

But, oh, how they would rue the day now! Because at last Charlotte had done what she should have years ago: she had fired Cott Jr., the incompetent, collaborationist son of the old family lawyer who'd done little more than play at resisting the town's grab, and she'd gone herself into the records down at the town hall. And there she'd discovered the mendacity of these idiots. Cott Jr. had said she had no legal recourse. But he was wrong. She'd filed her own suit now. She didn't need an attorney to stand up before a judge. She would crush these scoundrels all on her own. And though it was late in the day, the trees already felled, that monstrosity already erected, still how sweet the victory would be when eventually she evicted that little charmer and razed his house to the ground.

Just thinking of it slackened the muscles of her shoulders and chest, as if for these many months she'd been wearing a shirt of chain mail, the bands of which were only now beginning to warm and expand, allowing her to breathe. Heading up the road past the Bennetts', she came to the low

Excerpted from Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. Copyright Adam Haslett 2010 by Nan A. Talese. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.

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