Fiction: "Union Atlantic," by Adam Haslett
The year was 1988, a time when the Reagan administration was backing Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran. Trigger fingers on the U.S. missile cruiser Vincennes in the Persian Gulf blew 209 people aboard an Iranian jetliner to kingdom come, claiming the large Airbus climbing to cruising altitude was a smaller Iranian F-14 descending toward the ship.
In the true tradition of the executive branch -- the U-2 was only a weather plane, North Vietnamese boats were attacking U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, there was no whitewash in the White House, Saddam had the bomb -- the administration lied and went on its way.
Adam Haslett in his insightful and sad novel damns what has become this culture of official deceit and its corrosive effect on the national soul. "Union Atlantic" will possibly be the quintessential American novel of the first decade of the 21st century
In a time when novels grow fat without enough editors at publishers, Mr. Haslett wastes few words in capturing the nation's mood in the months after Sept. 11 while cannily laying the foundations of the economic collapse seven years later.
Deception is only part of the story; making money -- gobs of it -- with government complicity -- is the other. One of his best characters is Henry Graves, a man of the "old school," who runs the New York branch of the Federal Reserve Bank.
Confronting a wealthy CEO whose bank was facing collapse in a multimillion-dollar fraud, he weighs the pros and cons of a bailout that would calm the stock market:
"That after forty years he should stand up and say to the system he'd spent his life protecting, I disagree. Stability doesn't save anyone. Regulation is just a ruse to cover up organized theft and it convinces no one but the public."
Nan Talese; Doubleday ($26)
The contemporary weight to those words is uncomfortable although "Union Atlantic" is set in 2002 when the economy was sagging, but nothing like it is today. Mr. Haslett's unerring sense that a poison was loose in the world's financial system years ago demonstrates that he knows his territory well.
Few recent novels are as smart as "Union Atlantic" in explaining not only how our financial system works, but also in how people's lives are caught up in the getting and spending.
Doug Fanning is the novelist's central character, complicit as a young sailor in the Vincennes incident and later enmeshed in massive fraud that threatens his employer, the megabank Union Atlantic.
He's a disturbing man -- unemotional, manipulative and alone. Fanning uses a depressed high school student Nate as his lover and accomplice in defeating his protesting neighbor, the wonderfully imagined Charlotte Graves, Henry's sister.
Aged and delusional, Charlotte fights Fanning over the McMansion he's built near her decrepit family home, destroying woods and open spaces in the process. His piece of tasteless excess, however is rooted in a part of Fanning that he hides from the world.
In opposition, Haslett casts Charlotte as the repository of American history who watches powerlessly as her beliefs are trampled. Enhancing her mounting imbalance, she imagines the voices of her two dogs, one sounding like Cotton Mather, the other, Malcolm X. The disparate voices are a brilliant touch.
"Can you trust the pulse of life without becoming Mr. Fanning?" she asks Nate. "Because he is the future. One way or the other. His kind of rapaciousness, it doesn't end. It just bides its time."
Assigned to tutor the indifferent teen for his AP history test, Charlotte captures the mood of the nation today with her civics lesson:
"It's 1964. The Republicans are in disarray, a party in the wilderness ... The Civil Rights Act has just been passed. And along comes a man named Barry Goldwater. And he's got an idea: make government the enemy."
It's 2010 and Goldwater's formula is stronger than ever.
Unfolding in the summer of 2002, "Union Atlantic" moves inexorably to its scorchingly cynical and believable conclusion as armed convoys cross into Iraq and crassness and mendacity continue to thrive.
"Union Atlantic" is in the tradition of Trollope's "The Way We Live Now" and Howells' "A Hazard of New Fortunes," 19th-century novels inspired by economic conditions that disturbed the authors. Haslett joins them in writing that rare novel -- an honest, unflinching statement that rouses our passions and challenges our intellect.
First Published February 7, 2010 12:00 am