three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
46-May-June-2010
By: 
Adam Haslett
user_rating: 
0

A-Union AtlanticPen/Malamud Award-winning Adam Haslett's first book, the acclaimed short story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here (2002), was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Nation, the Atlantic, and Esquire. Union Atlantic is his first novel.

The Story: Doug Fanning, a remorseless and corrupt investment banker at Boston's Union Atlantic Bank, has just razed a forest and built a sprawling, garish McMansion in a stratified suburb. Next door, his increasingly unbalanced neighbor, former schoolteacher Charlotte Graves, resolves to force the city to reclaim Doug's land and demolish the "steroidal offense." Unbeknownst to her, the confused and directionless high school student she tutors and tries to nurture, Nate Fuller, has begun a masochistic affair with Doug. When Doug's questionable investments bring Union Atlantic to the brink of financial collapse, Charlotte's younger brother, New York Federal Reserve President Henry Graves, must try to forestall the looming disaster.
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 304 pages. $26. ISBN: 9780385524476

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Union Atlantic will possibly be the quintessential American novel of the first decade of the 21st century. ... Haslett joins [Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now and Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes] in writing that rare novel--an honest, unflinching statement that rouses our passions and challenges our intellect." Bob Hoover

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Emerging here as a sort of E. M. Forster of the aughts, Haslett high-steps nimbly from great tenderness to arch social satire, and from the civic to the personal. ... In Haslett's hands, the potentially dry descriptions of a complicated series of fiscal gambits and regulatory policy spring to dramatic life." Claude Peck

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"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." Ron Charles

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Doug is] familiar--a cross between Tom Wolfe's Master of the Universe and Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho--but worse than that, the writing devoted to him becomes journalistic as it tells us more about how banking works in the real world rather than how bankers might think in the novel's world. ... These moments aside, Haslett's Union Atlantic gives us that something else: a high-spirited, slyly astute exploration of our great bottoming out." Brock Clarke

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Reminiscent of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, Haslett's novel is a fast, compelling read, and a cautionary tale of our time. ... The biggest weakness of the novel is its pedestrian summation of financial-world events and trends." William J. Cobb

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Perhaps [the banking] part of the book falters because most of the narrative is centered on Doug Fanning, who proves to be a black hole of morality and never overcomes his arrogance and coldness to become a character who deserves the reader's sympathy, one we can insert our hooks into and crack open to find the beating heart within." Lauren Groff

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"That these clumsy and melodramatic plot contrivances and the one-dimensional portraits of Doug and Charlotte do not entirely undermine this high-concept novel is a testament to Mr. Haslett's creation of an intriguing cast of supporting characters like Henry and Nate, his Wolfeian mastery of status details and his vigorous conjuring of two worlds: the high-finance world of Boston and the small-town ethos of Finden. These elements are enough to keep the reader plowing ahead, but not enough to engage the imagination." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Although most reviewers praised Haslett's ambitious debut novel, they agreed on little else. Some extolled his richly imagined and beautifully depicted characters, while others denounced them as overly simplistic ciphers. Critics regarded Haslett's writing by turns as elegant, overwrought, graceful, and awkward, and they generally considered the wealth of financial information he imparts "so unobtrusive that he teaches a great deal without appearing pedagogical" (San Francisco Chronicle). However, rival reviewers likened such information to a dull newspaper article. Despite their differences, the critics found something to admire. Through his tight control of language, dialogue, and action, Haslett manages to juggle numerous storylines and topical issues, which yields a multilayered novel that manages to be "both brainy and soap-dishy" (Boston Globe).

Cited by the Critics

The Way We Live Now | Anthony Trollope (1875): In this sweeping indictment of Victorian England, mysterious foreign financier Augustus Melmotte leaves Vienna for London, where he both intrigues and repulses his upper-class neighbors.

The Bonfire of the Vanities | Thomas Wolfe (1987): In this classic exposé of 1980s greed, ambition, and racism, arrogant Wall Street bond trader Sherman McCoy, driving through the Bronx at night with his mistress, hits a young black man, panics, and leaves him bleeding by the side of the road--a decision that could potentially cost him everything he holds dear.