In Union Atlantic, the debut novel from New York’s Adam Haslett, one little street comes to control billions of dollars of the capital that circulates daily through the United States and beyond.
But it isn’t Wall Street. It isn’t in the city of New York, for that matter, or even the state.
No, the hub of so much wealth is a residential road in a sleepy Massachusetts town called Finden. Here three of the most prominent players in the finance game—the CEO of the Union Atlantic bank, his hotshot executive, and the president of the New York Federal Reserve—all live or hang out, in a place whose population is a few thousand.
This is all about as likely as the leaders of the G8 sharing a townhouse, and immediately puts the novel into a rather deep hole. Combined with Haslett’s tendency to provide long, flowery descriptions of paintings and dreams rather than annotate the parts of this massive financial machine, it makes the book a disappointing take on greed and the nature of financial crisis.
As the book opens, Union Atlantic, once a bit player in the banking industry, is quickly on the rise. Doug Fanning is the executive in charge of expansion, and he’s starting to authorize bigger and more legally questionable risks on the bank’s dime. He’s also just bought a gaudy mansion in Finden, which his neighbour, an ex–history teacher named Charlotte, claims is built on preserved land her family donated to the city. To help with her lawsuit, Charlotte calls in her brother, the head of the New York Fed and—by fluke!—the very man keeping a close eye on Union’s activities.
Haslett is undeniably an elegant stylist, but he paints in too much detail, and only in one corner of a very large canvas. Important ideas aren’t given room to breathe properly. Doug’s affair with a precocious teenage boy awkwardly compresses and literalizes one of the book’s central claims: capitalism is fucking the youth.
The most successful parts come when Charlotte, an energizing mouthpiece for the left, chastises Doug up close at a party. When he starts implying blackmail, she snaps: “It’s incredible to me, Mr. Fanning, that a person could be quite so transparent as yourself. One imagines that adulthood comes with some minimum of complexity.”
It’s a bracing gulp of fresh air. If only there were more like it to go around.
Nan A. Talese, 320 pp, $32, hardcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, April 8, 2010)