Wednesday March 17th, 2010

Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett

union-atlanticHaslett’s first novel—his 2002 story collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award—has been getting some of the best reviews of the new year. It follows a young banker named Doug Fanning as he builds a McMansion and helps the titular bank make some ambitious, risky moves. His neighbor, Charlotte Graves, is a retired history teacher who wants to boot Doug off the land. Charlotte, who believes her two dogs are speaking to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X, begins tutoring a high school senior named Nate. Oh, and Charlotte’s brother is the head of the New York Federal Reserve.

In the Washington Post, Ron Charles writes: “Adam Haslett is no John Steinbeck, but he may be our F. Scott Fitzgerald, an author capable of memorializing our crash in all its personal cost and lurid beauty. His first novel, Union Atlantic, is a strange, elegant story that illuminates the financial and moral calamity of the young 21st century.” And in the New York Times, Liesl Schillinger says, “The eerie overlap of Haslett’s narrative with current events in the American economy gives Union Atlantic unusual impact. This timely novel demonstrates not only how the financial crisis happened but why—by documenting the intersection of big, blunt historical forces with tiny, intricate, cumulatively powerful personal impulses. Businesses become too big to fail, Haslett suggests, because individuals fail one another, in a snowball effect.”

Haslett is a graceful writer (a “gorgeous minimalist” in Charles’ words), but I got stuck about halfway through the novel because of details, not style, and I’m unsure about whether I’ll try to get unstuck. The idea of the dog voices strikes me as supremely silly, Charlotte’s speeches are obvious in their didacticism, and Doug is a bland container for bigger ideas. Scott Indrisek, writing for Bookforum, gets closest to explaining my reaction to the book: “Fanning’s downfall would have been more of a tragedy if the author had succeeded in painting him as anything more than a cipher. . . . Union Atlantic aims to be the Important Social Novel of 2010; instead, it’s an entertaining and topical melodrama. To its credit, the book is a fair snapshot of our current economic and geopolitical impasse: loud, contradictory, yet oddly static.”

Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett
Nan A. Talese, 320 pp., $26.00