When Adam Haslett was writing the novel that became Union Atlantic, he couldn’t have known that a book about a rogue banker, the Federal Reserve and conflicts between old and new monies would have such special resonance at the beginning of the century’s second decade. Haslett’s vision of an implosion in the financial world was certainly prescient, making this an eerily intriguing novel to read, its absorbing storytelling powered by Haslett’s intelligence and compassion.
The plot of Union Atlantic is two-pronged—focusing on a legal battle and a banking crisis—both of which explore the class and cultural tensions that shape America’s current conditions. A veteran of the Gulf War, Doug Fanning works for Union Atlantic bank. Doug oversaw the bank’s transformation from a local community savings and loan to a player in the world markets, a transition that made billions, and he continues to manage the bank’s multinational funds. Raised in a working class family, he uses some of his newfound wealth to build a McMansion on a parcel of land originally donated to the town by the affluent and privileged Graves family. This enrages Charlotte Graves, a retired schoolteacher and granddaughter of the donor who is eking out a living as a tutor. Charlotte’s brother Henry, who runs the Federal Reserve, is drawn into the story, first when Charlotte sues Doug over what she considers to be a gross misuse of the property, and secondly when the Federal Reserve is called upon to bail out the Union Atlantic as it teeters on the edge of dissolution. Into the fray walks Nate Fuller, an awkward teenager who is sympathetic to his tutor Charlotte, but also drawn to Doug’s irresistible wealth and power. The troubled but trusting teen is used by both adults as each one schemes to outwit the other.
Haslett’s 2002 book of short stories You Are Not a Stranger Here explored with lucid sympathy pivotal moments in the lives of troubled adults. The damaged characters of Union Atlantic inhabit a similar world of depression and loss. Haslett’s empathy for his characters is remarkable, drawing us past the surface into the key moments that shape their decisions, choices and core identities. This is especially true of Charlotte Graves, whose righteous anger will feel all too familiar to anyone bewildered by today’s financial headlines.
Lauren Bufferd writes from Nashville.