A sweeping novel about a battle between a teacher and a millionaire banker.
Admirers of Adam Haslett's 2002 debut story collection should rejoice at the news, this many years later, of the gifted writer's first novel.
Haslett's "You Are Not a Stranger Here," a finalist for a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, was inward, centering on characters suffering the agony of mental illness and dysfunction. "Union Atlantic" is a public novel drawn from such post-Sept. 11 headlines as Mideast war, bank deregulation and the mortgage crisis.
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. He even manages to make monetary systems -- "loans, lines of credit, borrowed money, the vast creationary incentive of compound interest, blind artificer of the modern world" -- glow like poetry.
Union Atlantic has transformed from a regional bank to a multinational financial-services conglomerate, the biggest bank in Boston and one of the nation's four largest. Hard-charging Doug Fanning has helped lead an expansion, buying up bad loans and making barely legal hedge plays on foreign currencies.
A multimillionaire at 37, when he builds "a casino of a house" in a woody suburb, it puts him in conflict with Charlotte Graves, a retired history teacher living next door in crumbling gentility.
As the neighbors' dispute plays out, a larger one emerges when Charlotte's brother Henry, president of the New York Federal Reserve, is called on to police an international banking crisis that threatens Union Atlantic. In Haslett's hands, the potentially dry descriptions of a complicated series of fiscal gambits and regulatory policy spring to dramtic life.
Nate Fuller, a 17-year-old whose father has killed himself, enters Charlotte's life, and also becomes involved with Fanning. The latter pairing, of a directionless teen and a high-test venture capitalist who seems otherwise heterosexual, is a bit unlikely, but Haslett perceptively sketches scenes involving Nate and his smart but disaffected high school friends.
While "Union Atlantic" indicts the machinations and collusions that allow rogue bankers to lose billions with impunity, the book's politics are rewardingly complex. Charlotte, the "classic midcentury Democratic idealist, raised on Adlai Stevenson," is an unreliable mouthpiece, overly intellectual, scarred by anger and becoming senile.
Fanning's bare-knuckled capitalism is based less on ideology than on a working-class boy's misguided pursuit of "power over information, control, something bigger than rules or good taste." And Henry, emblem of the elite, is kind and ethical, dull and stuffy.
Among the book's major characters, that leaves Nate. Probably gay, fatherless and with few plans beyond high school, he feels half-formed. Yet in a late chapter, he gravitates toward someone his own age in a tentative romance, hinting that love can shape us as powerfully as power and money.
Claude Peck is a senior culture editor for the Star Tribune.