Adam Haslett’s debut novel Union Atlantic is a slam dunk as far as I’m concerned. Haslett’s well-crafted prose—which I can’t wait to read more of once I get my hands on his short story collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here—posits an eerily plausible account of the causes the current financial crisis. While the esoteric world of margin accounts and mortgage-backed securities can be intimidating, Haslett does a wonderful job of explaining the arcane terminology and practices via his believable and surprisingly sympathetic cast of characters.
We first meet Doug Fanning as a young man serving in the Navy during the first Gulf War. One day, during a routine operation, Doug witnesses an unidentified plane on his radar and alerts his commanding officer. Failing to divulge all of the details of the plane, Doug’s ship, the Vincennes, mistakenly attacks an Iranian passenger jet, killing all 260 civilians on board. However, instead of being disciplined, the men are rewarded by the military in an effort to avert a prolonged investigation in an already shaky political climate.
Once he is out of the Navy, Doug finds himself escalating the corporate ladder to the number two position at Union Atlantic, a Bank of America-like financial services juggernaut. Under his superior, the bottom line-obsessed Jeffrey Holland, Doug manipulates the complicated system of banking entities and financial applications to make a lot of money for himself and his company while avoiding potential setbacks imposed by the regulatory authorities. In doing so, however, Doug ultimately finds himself authorizing—and then attempting to cover up—a series of bad decisions made by a greedy protégé.
In the midst of the financial drama is the story of Doug’s neighbor, Charlotte Graves. Charlotte is a bit of a crank, but deeply loyal to her liberal beliefs about politics and society. So, when Doug tears down acres of forest to build an eyesore of a mansion next-door, Charlotte focuses her energy on the lawsuit she has filed to take the land back. While Doug clearly underestimates Charlotte as a nagging irritant, she is in fact much deeper than her politics lead others to believe. Once she begins tutoring Nate Fuller, a local high school student coping with his father’s recent suicide, the details of her tumultuous college relationship with the deeply troubled Eric come to light, revealing cracks in the scrupulous character she has long prided herself on maintaining.
For me, the resounding success of Union Atlantic is found in its ability to assess human morality by its reaction to the chaos of the financial crisis. While Doug is for all intents and purposes the villain of this novel, he is by no means a flat character. After his experience in the Navy, Doug learns that cleverly masked mistakes are often rewarded and as a result, puts this knowledge into practice at Union Atlantic. Charlotte, on the other hand, operates solely off of her strong beliefs about modern society. As a result, though, she finds herself isolated from long desired human companionship.
Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic is hands down one of the best books I’ve read in a while and comes highly recommended to readers of all types. I look forward to hearing more from this insightful voice in contemporary literature.