'Union Atlantic' Author Banked On A Coming Crisis

Adam Haslett i i

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

itoggle caption Brigitte Lacombe
Adam Haslett

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

Brigitte Lacombe

Adam Haslett likes old-fashioned novels that take a sweeping look into the corners of society, using carefully imagined characters to explore the relationships between the rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, the good and the bad.

"The idea of the novelist in the world trying to tackle the complexity of contemporary life is something that I take seriously," Haslett says.

And his own debut novel, Union Atlantic, sometimes reads as if Haslett was listening into the private conversations that led to the economic collapse and the bank bailouts that followed.

Yet the remarkable fact is that Haslett finished the novel well before the real-life events took place. In the late '90s, Haslett was reading about the Federal Reserve and some of the economic problems that were just beginning to stir.

"It struck me that there were these people who had enormous amounts of power over the economy, the whole economy," Haslett says. "And yet we didn't really understand what they did, they weren't elected, people didn't have an opportunity to make anyone answer for anything. And, of course, it's easy to make a political judgment about that but as a novelist what I wanted to do was take the reader into those people's minds to find out for myself and then also maybe for the reader what drove people in those positions."

Haslett's first book, the collection of stories You Are Not a Stranger Here, was nominated for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. For the follow-up, he came up with the story of a bank on the verge of failing due to a high-risk and highly irregular gamble by of one of its most arrogant and ambitious young lions, Doug Fanning. Stepping in to save the situation is Henry Graves, president of the New York Federal Reserve.

Sections of the book read almost as if they were transcripts of meetings between officials at New York's Fed and failing banks, including one scene in which Henry Graves tells bank officials that Union Atlantic will be allowed to fail rather than being bailed out — a bluff, as it turns out. But Haslett wrote that passage, and others like it, well before most Americans had any idea our major financial institutions could be so vulnerable. And Haslett sounds as surprised as anyone that his fiction dovetailed so neatly with reality.

"It was an uncanny experience," he says. "The week I finished the manuscript and sent it off was the week that Lehman Brothers collapsed. And so I walked in and read the headlines and started reading about these meetings at the Fed in New York with the bankers and I thought to myself, 'Oh yeah, I wrote that scene a year ago.' So, I mean, I felt both scooped and validated at the same time — and a little disoriented."

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

Read An Excerpt

Haslett says his concern for the book's reception quickly veered toward worry that Union Atlantic would be seen exclusively through the lens of the collapse.

"In a way I think it's about some broader cultural themes about the moral climate in the country and finance was the industry that I picked as a backdrop," he says.

To explore those larger cultural themes, Haslett created the character of Charlotte Graves, a retired history teacher and the sister of Fed chief Graves. Charlotte still lives in their family home, which is now falling apart around her. She is forced to defend not only her real estate but her most cherished beliefs and values when the rogue banker Doug Fanning buys the property next door, tears down the woods that have stood for centuries and builds a huge McMansion. As Fanning's banking career starts imploding, Charlotte wages a legal battle against him and his house.

She watches the world she values — and her emotional investment in her land — betrayed by Fanning. And she lashes out at her brother when he tries to convince her to back down.

"Take a step back for a moment, and look at what's going on in this country," Charlotte tells Henry. "Tell me I'm wrong to want to make a stand. You can't. Not without betraying language, and I think you're better than that."

Just as Charlotte believes in the power of language, so does Haslett. Fiction, he says, gives us the time to contemplate where we are headed.

"The world is so insanely complex and fast and distracting, and one of the things I think a good book can do is slow the reader's attention down a little bit and give them a chance to think through some of the consequences of these changes which otherwise are so quick that all you can do is react," Haslett says.

So is literature the answer?

"It's an ameliorative," Haslett says with a laugh. "I don't think it's an answer, I don't think it will solve our problems but I think how we pay attention to the world matters and if you can spend time inside an imaginative world then there's a calmness and an ability to think."

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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