Adam Haslett is nothing if not prescient. Inspired to write a novel after reading a book about the Federal Reserve 10 years ago, he finished “Union Atlantic” the week that Lehman Brothers collapsed.
His novel centers on a large — dare we say “too big to fail”? — investment bank, Union Atlantic, unbound from some regulations and barely legally skirting others, led into ruin by the greed-driven, high-risk dealings of a couple of rogue employees. The Fed is forced to deal with the teetering bank through hushed-up, closed-door deals to prevent a domino effect.
One of these rogue bankers, Doug Fanning, is the central character of the novel. No doubt his life was influenced by growing up with a poor, alcoholic mother and by being part of a Navy crew that accidentally shot down a passenger jet in the Persian Gulf, but he is not a thoughtful or empathetic adult.
Doug’s not evil, just empty. For him, it’s not even all about the money, it has as much to do with power: “The execution was what gratified him. The focus and precision and directedness of his will. At such times, his churning mind turned lucid and through it power flowed as frictionless as money down a fiber-optic line, the resistance of the physical world reduced to the vanishing point.”
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When Doug churns up virgin woodland to build an ostentatious mansion, his neighbor, a retired history teacher living in the house she grew up in, is incensed and reacts in the typical American way: She sues.
Charlotte Graves could be a sympathetic character, a beacon of humanity to counter Doug’s soullessness, but she’s prickly, smug and possibly on the edge of dementia. When she speaks, it’s usually in lectures that descend into screeds, or in extended conversation with her two dogs.
When high school student Nate Fuller comes to Charlotte for tutoring, his curiosity leads him to peer into, and then break into, Doug’s house. Doug awakens Nate’s attraction to men, and, in a turn that seems too contrived, the two end up having regular, one-sided sexual encounters. The dynamic of their situation changes when Doug tells Nate to spy on Charlotte regarding the lawsuit over the house.
The last significant character in the book, Henry Graves, Charlotte’s brother, is the head of the New York Fed, and thus he’s the one who has to work out a complex, discreet deal to prevent the collapse of Union Atlantic. He’s a good, decent public servant, but only a cog in the vast private-public banking system.
The novel is well written, as is evident in this description of Nate’s house: “Anywhere people lived memory collected like sediment on the bed of a river, dropping from the flow of time to become fixed in the places time ran over. But in this house, since his father had died, it seemed sediment was all that was left. . .”
Haslett also explains complex banking transactions in a mostly straightforward way, with enough detail to make them comprehensible but not so much that the story bogs down.
However, good writing isn’t enough to overcome two major flaws with “Union Atlantic.” One is that the story is not all that gripping. Unlike many novels with plots that strain the imagination, this one is too believable: We’ve just lived through these events. As such, it’s hard to muster outrage for fictional greedy bankers who bring down venerable institutions and get off scot-free when we’ve already spent a lot on the real ones.
The other problem is that most of the main characters aren’t likable — Doug is bad enough before he starts using Nate, Charlotte is grating, Nate is needy and callow. Only Henry seems to truly appreciate the complexity and nuance of his situation. And one of the most interesting characters — the whistleblower from within the investment bank — we don’t see nearly enough of.
“Union Atlantic” is very much of an age, but whether it’s for the ages, we’ll have to wait and see. When there’s more distance between us and the real-life financial crisis, will the story hold up as a portrait of a crash in the making? Or will we have no need for reminders in an era of prosperity yet to come?