RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Ever so often a novel comes along that captures the moment. Adam Hasletts new novel is that kind of book. Some events in Union Atlantic read as though the author had been listening in on the private conversations that led to the economic collapse and the bank bailouts that followed. But he finished the novel well before the economic meltdown.
NPRs Lynn Neary talked to him about his uncanny ability to see where the country was going before it even got there.
LYNN NEARY: Adam Haslett likes old-fashioned novels, 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.
Mr. ADAM HASLETT (Author, Union Atlantic): The idea of the novelist in the world trying to tackle the complexity of contemporary life is something that I take seriously.
NEARY: Back in the late '90s, Haslett was reading about the Federal Reserve and some of the economic problems that were beginning to stir back then.
Mr. HASLETT: It struck me that there were these people who had enormous amounts of power over the economy, the whole economy. And yet we really 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 maybe just 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.
NEARY: And so Haslett came up with the story of Union Atlantic, 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. In this excerpt, read by Haslett, Graves is meeting with the banks president to discuss their options.
Mr. HASLETT: Let me start by saying that if you and your board is under the impression that Union Atlantic is too big to fail, youre mistaken. There is no question here of a bailout. If you go under, the markets will take a substantial hit. But with enough liquidity in the system we can cut you loose. I hope you understand that. This, of course, was a bluff. Henry had already begun receiving calls from the Treasury Department. The secretary was confident, his deputy said in their transparent euphemism, that the Federal Reserve shared his concerns about market stability. The translation: the White House is watching this one.
NEARY: Haslett wrote those words before most us had any idea our major financial institutions could be so vulnerable. Haslett sounds as surprised as anyone that his fiction dovetailed so neatly with reality.
Mr. HASLETT: I mean, it was an uncanny experience. The week that 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 of the Fed in New York with the bankers, and I thought to myself, oh yeah, no, I wrote that scene a year ago. So I mean I felt both scooped and validated at the same time and a little disoriented.
NEARY: When you say you felt scooped, did you worry that people were going to think he didnt make this up, I mean he
Mr. HASLETT: Well, sure.
NEARY: and ripped it from the headline?
Mr. HASLETT: Yeah, of course, I worried about that a bit. The thing that I worried about more was that because of this, the book would be seen as solely about the financial world, and in a way I think its about some broader cultural things about the moral climate in the country and finance was the industry that I picked as a backdrop.
NEARY: To explore those larger cultural themes, Haslett has created the character of Charlotte Graves, a retired history teacher and the sister of Fed chief Henry 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 errant banker Doug Fanning buys the property next door, tears down the woods that have stood for centuries and builds a huge McMansion. As Fannings banking career starts imploding, Charlotte wages a legal battle against him and his house. In this excerpt, again read by Haslett, Charlotte lashes out at her brother for trying to get her to back down.
Mr. HASLETT: Take a step back for a moment and look at whats going on in this country, and I dont mean just the criminals at the top. Theyll do their damage and stumble out eventually. I mean the last 30 years, and then tell me if you can honestly say that the intrusion of that house, the cutting down of those trees, whoever they might have belonged to once, doesnt stand for something, for a rot more pervasive, and then tell me Im wrong to want to make a stand. You cant. Not without betraying language, and I think youre better than that. I know you are because that really would be the end, to accede to that, to the notion that words mean nothing anymore, that theyre pure tactics. You dont believe that.
NEARY: Just as Charlotte believes in the power of language, so does Haslett. And fiction, he says, gives us the time to contemplate where were headed.
Mr. HASLETT: The world is so insanely complex and fast and distracting, and one of the things that I think a good book can do is slow the readers 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.
NEARY: So literature is the answer?
Mr. HASLETT: I think its part of its an ameliorative. I dont think its the answer, I dont think its gong to solve our problems, but I think that how we pay attention to the world matters, and if you can spend time inside an imaginative world, then theres a calmness and an ability to think.
NEARY: Haslett, a writer who looks back to the novels of the 19th century for inspiration, has managed to create a spot on portrayal of life in the 21st century with his own first novel. His incisive dissection of contemporary American culture is both funny and heartbreaking.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: You can read an excerpt from Adam Hasletts novel, Union Atlantic, on our Web site npr.org.