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Book World: Ron Charles reviews 'Union Atlantic' by Adam Haslett

By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010; C01

UNION ATLANTIC

By Adam Haslett

Doubleday. 304 pp. $26

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Since housing prices peaked in 2006, we've been in a bull market for nonfiction about the Great Recession. From Andrew Sorkin's "Too Big to Fail" to William Cohan's "House of Cards," journalists, historians and economists have spent millions of words explaining the crisis that gutted Lehman Brothers, emasculated General Motors and robbed 10 percent of us of our jobs.

But where is our Steinbeck? The novelists we might expect to take on this disaster are investing in other fields: Tom Wolfe, Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen all have novels coming out this year, but none of them seems to have much to do with the fact that several trillion dollars blew away in the financial dust bowl.

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. Although he started it years before most of us knew the difference between a liquidity crunch and Cap'n Crunch, his story about the collapse of the nation's third-largest bank seems deftly woven with details of the current economic drama. But despite all its financial pyrotechnics, "Union Atlantic" is ultimately steeped in nostalgia for lost and irretrievable love.

Haslett conjures up the alchemy of modern banking so cleverly that even if you're not entirely sure what it means to sell naked puts on foreign currency, it still sounds sexy and dangerous. Rather than explain how inflated California mortgages are sliced and transformed into Chinese surplus, he gives you a sense of how perilous that practice is, and he creates a few lyrical moments that capture the lightning-fast chatter of markets in which faith and greed -- and nothing more -- keep trillions of electronic promises racing around the world in a giant game of musical chairs.

At the center of the novel is a startlingly handsome investment banker, "an attractive weapon" named Doug Fanning. At 37, Doug has no friends, no family and no interests except executing his will, allowing his mind to flow as "frictionless as money down a fiber-optic line, the resistance of the physical world reduced to the vanishing point." He and an older partner have transformed a conservative Boston bank into a global player that reaps billions from creative, ferocious dealmaking. As the story opens, Doug is director of Special Plans, a shadowy department charged with pursuing "acquisitions that were strictly speaking still illegal but that Doug foresaw would be approved by the time the deals were finalized." While giving a trader in Hong Kong his typically expert and unethical advice, he's also unknowingly setting the stage for a financial disaster that will shake world markets.

This is easy material to get lost in -- tortuous for an author to explain, tedious for most readers to understand -- but Haslett is a gorgeous minimalist. He moves through the financial material briskly, more as poetry than economics: A hushed tour of the gold vault under the New York Federal Reserve is enthralling; his portrayal of currency speculation glistens.

Besides, Haslett is more interested in the moral capital of these people. Doug's affable but expedient character seems, at first, as thin as a dollar bill, but gradually the signs of repressed anguish begin to accrue. He may not be running toward the prize so much as away from his past (Jon Hamm, call your agent).

The real conflict of the novel takes place far from the stock markets of New York and London, in an Old Money town outside of Boston where Doug builds a giant, empty mansion. To his irate neighbor, a retired history teacher, Doug's house is a work of architectural pornography, a "steroidal offense" and a defilement of woods her grandfather donated to the town years ago.

Charlotte Graves -- how Hawthorne would love that name! -- is the novel's most masterful and heartbreaking figure, a feisty old crank who was driven from her teaching job for her liberal politics and is still railing against the euphemisms and grotesqueries of modern life. "Through all of it," Haslett observes, she had "somehow retained the energy for a more or less permanent outrage at the failure of the shabby world to live up to its stated principles." Holed up in her broken-down home ("the kitchen looked like a set from The Grapes of Wrath") she delivers a long series of erudite if slightly unhinged diatribes, while wading through a great sea of papers and clippings and notes. Still grieving over a lover who died decades ago, she lives alone with two large dogs that berate her in the voices of Malcolm X and Cotton Mather. Doug thinks he can squash this unbalanced "old hag" and her lawsuit against his new house, but he doesn't yet know that her younger brother is the irreproachable director of the New York Federal Reserve.

Connecting these two antagonists in the most unlikely way is a lonely high school senior named Nate Fuller. Completely adrift since the death of his father and surprisingly unaware of his homosexuality, Nate is sent to Charlotte Graves for tutoring in American history, which would be fine if Howard Zinn were grading the AP exam. But Nate doesn't care about the test and eventually finds this old lady kind of sweet and fascinating. Unfortunately, he also falls under the spell of Charlotte's handsome neighbor and adversary, at which point the story develops into a tragedy of violated trust and abused affection, a small, brutal deed set against the background of an act of global financial fraud.

Haslett's first book, a collection of short stories called "You Are Not a Stranger Here" (2002), was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and you can see the sensibilities of a master short story writer at work in "Union Atlantic," which seems to hover halfway between a novel and a collection of linked stories. Some isolated moments seem oddly stranded and unnecessary (the pot-smoking high school scenes are a dull trip), but at the center of the book lies a 30-page Fourth of July party at the home of a wealthy banker that's so witty and evocative it could make a writer's whole career. And in general, Haslett manages to keep this complex plot with all its far-flung and local characters almost magically levitated, directing our attention to one and then another while conveying an ever deeper sense of the world's moral bankruptcy.

Some will find the economic detail off-putting, others may consider Doug's act of sexual exploitation unbearable, but there are many pleasures in this book with its crosscurrents of satire and grief, high finance and gnawing remorse. As different as they are, Doug, Charlotte and Nate are all driven into the past, stretching out their arms for an idealized object of affection who can never be reclaimed. It's a profound, strikingly intelligent story about the cost of living in a world in which real values have been supplanted by a fiat currency of self-interest and empty promises.

Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/roncharles.

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