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Union Atlantic is a smart book. Cerebral. Highbrow. Articulate. Or at least, the author and all it’s supporting characters would like you to believe that. It has a protagonist who fought in the Persian Gulf, Doug Fanning, who yearns to leave the Navy behind and “begin his real life,” which at thirtysomething means becoming the second-in-command of a growing commercial bank called Union Atlantic, headquartered in Boston.
Fanning, post-war, is so smart and successful (and wily, really, funneling lots of the bank’s money through a securities scheme involving a limited liability company) that he builds a mansion in Finden, Massachusetts with his excess income, near his boyhood hometown and not far from where his mother once worked as a maid to, well, better-off and wealthier families. He fails to decorate it, however; the mansion remains empty save for a bed, a TV, and other necessities.
His property is next door to antagonist Charlotte Graves, a former high school teacher forcibly retired, whose long-tenured American family and charitable organization previously owned the property where Fanning has erected his monstrous new mansion. Charlotte is something of an eccentric, a “secular mystic” and “fierce independent,” whose tutoring sessions on American history for one of the town’s slackers, Nate Fuller, a high school senior, disintegrates into diatribes and discourses on various subjects ranging from Barry Goldwater to Middle East strategy.
Charlotte’s home is a crumbling, ratty old mess, papers astray, dishes unwashed, and she is so erudite and nutsy in her puttering and mumbling that she has bequeathed her two dogs with the ability to speak to her in the voices of activists Cotton Mather and Malcolm X.
Charlotte’s younger brother is Henry Graves, president of the New York Federal Reserve, a staid businessman on the mend from losing his wife. His day job is to be a hero and rescue worker for the world’s banking systems while keeping his wacky sister in check. When an international trading scheme at Union Atlantic goes awry and Charlotte decides to sue her neighbor because he has ruined her view of the forest, it seems the lives of all will invariably collide.
And indeed they do, but in slow, plodding detail bereft of a strong, stirring plot and compelling characters. While Haslett has a broad and sweeping knowledge of politics and real estate and securities laws, long tracts of brainy exposition seem entirely that—long tracts of brainy exposition. As a novelist, Haslett is ambitious to tackle such a current and expansive topic as the American financial system and its impact on the world, but he has missed several fictional opportunities in his essential narrative and bungled others. A drawn out chapter on a Fourth of July party seems contrived when it settles around the doped-up hostess-without-the-mostest and sheep, yes, sheep, wander through the party and shit on the shoes of the guests; while an anticipated court room showdown—which could have been a spectacular display of character and dialogue—is a quick letdown ended by a character’s sleight of hand.
The book’s gay element—young Nate’s dysfunctional friendship with the older Fanning, offering him experimental hand jobs and blow jobs—isn’t integral to the plot and seems extemporaneous. It certainly doesn’t provide empathy to either of the characters involved, nor does any other character in the book comment on the existence of the affair except for a few joking asides by Nate’s friends. I suppose a reader could argue that the affair has resonance in the novel’s denouement as its characters begin to make their choices, however a reviewer could also use it as a metaphor to describe the entire novel—dull and emotionless.
Big business (its rise and collapse and larger than life characters battling simpler ones) has provided better entertainments than this. Think Dynasty and Dallas. Think Sydney Sheldon and Jackie Collins and Tom Wolfe. I’m all for a smart and intelligent novel—but I really don’t want to be bored while reading it.
by Adam Haslett
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
Hardcover, $26.00, 310 pages