January 2010

Michael Schaub

fiction

Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett

You can envy Adam Haslett's talent -- and pretty much everybody who read his remarkable 2002 debut short story collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here, does -- but it's hard to imagine anyone envying the pressure the young author must have felt while writing his follow-up book. Forget the anxiety that every author feels when preparing a sophomore effort -- Haslett's debut was so well-received (it was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award), it basically guaranteed that every eye in the literary world would be focused on his next move. It's been almost eight years, and now we have Union Atlantic, his second book and his first novel. Unsurprisingly, it was worth the wait.

There's not a single main character in Union Atlantic; the novel follows the intersection of three confused people living in a small Massachusetts town: Doug Fanning, a Gulf War veteran and hotshot banker; Charlotte Graves, a retired teacher who's slowly losing her grasp on reality; and Nate Fuller, a gay teenage stoner dealing with the recent suicide of his father. Fanning works in Boston, but builds a tacky, palatial house in the town of Finden, near where he grew up. Graves lives next door -- her family had donated the preserve that Fanning had razed to build the house. Fuller, in danger of failing high school, has hired Graves as a history tutor, and befriends -- kind of -- Fanning, after the student sneaks into his house to look around.

Obviously, they're disparate characters; all they have in common is the fact that there lives are falling apart, spiraling out of control. Fanning learns that a trader in his employ has gone rogue, in the process threatening the foundation of Union Atlantic, Fanning's bank. Graves is distraught and furious over the destruction of the trees near her home; her only constant companions are her two dogs, who talk to her -- one in the voice of a '60s black militant, the other as a pious early American Puritan. Fuller is adrift and rudderless; he enters into a sexual relationship with Fanning, and is convinced he's fallen in love with the banker.

It's probably inevitable that Haslett's book will be cast as the first great American novel about the financial collapse of the banking industry. It's not. It is great, to be sure, but Haslett hasn't written a novelization of the nation's most recent economic debacle; this is, at its heart, a book about people. That's not to say Haslett doesn't know his subject matter -- the sections dealing with the banking industry are written with admirable clarity. (Even I managed to follow along, which surprised me -- the math and economics sections of my college transcripts have more F's than a Welsh street sign.)

And the people here are remarkable. They're not always likable -- Fanning, in particular, comes across as a particularly loathsome antihero -- but they're unbelievably interesting. And none more so than Nate Fuller, one of the most well-drawn characters I've come across in a while. Haslett manages to inhabit the mind of a confused, sad, and kind teenager perfectly. The result isn't always easy to read; one sex scene in particular between the young man and Fanning is unbearably painful, unbearably real, and it's hard to keep your heart from breaking with every word.

It's an unfortunate misconception that novels can either be character-based or story-based, but never both. There's a reason for that -- not many authors can pull off both a compelling story and compelling characters. Haslett has a rare talent for balancing both, though; Union Atlantic is exquisitely suspenseful, but the suspense is never forced or trite. The only complaint I have about the novel is that I wish it were longer, something I never thought I'd say about any book. Many contemporary American authors need to be talked out of their verbosity; there's still the idea that a huge book is synonymous with a great book. Sometimes it works out that way -- I wouldn't cut a page out of Infinite Jest or The Recognitions -- but for every one of those, there's an author convinced that page count has a direct correlation with IQ (you know who you are, dudes). I wonder if Haslett's book couldn't have benefited from just a little more, a few more scenes to get to know not just the main three characters, but the supporting ones as well -- Henry Graves, the president of the New York Fed and Charlotte's brother; Evelyn Jones, Union Atlantic's chief settlements administrator, whose family has been wracked by violence; and Emily, Jason, and Hal, Nate Fuller's three best friends, each of whom is original, well-drawn, and fascinating.

It's a minor complaint, though, especially considering that Haslett is a major talent. Union Atlantic should cement his reputation as one of America's great young authors -- there aren't many writers this original, and this intelligent, both intellectually and emotionally, around these days. It's been years since a novel has captured the zeitgeist of contemporary America this well; it's been years since a new author has convinced us, with just two books, that there might be nothing he can't do.

Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett
Nan A. Talese
ISBN: 0385524471
320 Pages