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.
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.