Union Atlantic

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"At the heart of Union Atlantic lies a test of wills between an ambitious young banker, Doug Fanning, and a retired history teacher, Charlotte Graves, who has suddenly begun to hear her two dogs speaking to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X. When Doug builds an ostentatious mansion on land that Charlotte's grandfather donated to the town of Finden, Massachusetts, she determines to oust him in court." "Drawn into the intensifying conflict is Nate Fuller, a troubled high-school senior who unwittingly stirs powerful emotions in both ...

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New York, NY 2010 Hard cover First edition. New in new dust jacket. SHIP DAILY from NJ; GIFT-ABLE, NEAR COLLECTIBLE as NEAR NEW FIRST, not a mark NEW w/DJ NEAR NEW (subtle ... shelving hug to cover) AS SHOWN THIS PHOTO Glued binding. Paper over boards. With dust jacket. 304 p. Audience: General/trade. 7191 7191-The eagerly anticipated debut novel from the author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist "You Are Not a Stranger Here, Union Atlantic" is a deeply affecting portrait of the modern gilded age, the first decade of the 21st century. See the Malcolm Gladwell review. Read more Show Less

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Union Atlantic

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"At the heart of Union Atlantic lies a test of wills between an ambitious young banker, Doug Fanning, and a retired history teacher, Charlotte Graves, who has suddenly begun to hear her two dogs speaking to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X. When Doug builds an ostentatious mansion on land that Charlotte's grandfather donated to the town of Finden, Massachusetts, she determines to oust him in court." "Drawn into the intensifying conflict is Nate Fuller, a troubled high-school senior who unwittingly stirs powerful emotions in both of them. As a senior manager of Union Atlantic, Doug is orchestrating the bank's elaborate gamble to remain at the head of the pack, And it is Charlotte's brother, Henry Graves, the president of the New York Federal Reserve, who must keep a watchful eye on the financial giant and its effect on the entire financial system." Union Atlantic is a portrait of the modern gilded age - the first decade of the twenty-first century.

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Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
Adam Haslett…may be our F. Scott Fitzgerald, an author capable of memorializing our crash in all its personal cost and lurid beauty. His first novel, Union Atlantic, is a strange, elegant story that illuminates the financial and moral calamity of the young 21st century…It's a profound, strikingly intelligent story about the cost of living in a world in which real values have been supplanted by a fiat currency of self-interest and empty promises.
—The Washington Post
Liesl Schillinger
Each story in [You Are Not a Stranger Here] explored a different way that tightly wound lives can come unspooled. Haslett wrote in a variety of detached, understated voices, each aching in its precise registry of the minute gradations of emotional pain. It's remarkable how successfully Union Atlantic—so unlike the stories in structure and style, and so much broader in scope—continues the nuance of Haslett's earlier characterizations. The actors in this extroverted drama are closeted (or not-so-closeted) introverts. The screen of their surface behavior hides their obsessions and hopes, as well as their shame—just as the balance sheet of a shady debt bundle can appear spruce and clear while concealing a thicket of machinations.…In Union Atlantic, swiftly and confidently, Haslett unwinds the ball of yarn that is the global financial crisis to reveal its core: a knot of ineluctable yearnings and individual needs.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In Haslett's excellent first novel (following Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist short story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here), a titan of the banking industry does battle with a surprisingly formidable opponent: a retired history teacher. Doug Fanning has built Union Atlantic from a mid-size Boston bank to an international powerhouse and rewards himself by building a rural palace in Finden, Mass. The land his house is built on, however, had been donated to Finden for preservation by Charlotte Graves's grandfather, and Charlotte believes she now has a claim on the lot. She may be right, and her disdain of modern decadence means bad news for Doug should she win in court. Meanwhile, high school senior Nate Fuller, who visits Charlotte for tutoring and Doug for awkward and lopsided sexual encounters, finds himself with the power to upset the legal and cultural war game. Haslett's novel is smart and carefully constructed, and his characters are brilliantly flawed. (Charlotte's emerging instability is especially heartbreaking.) This book should be of interest to readers fascinated but perplexed by the current financial crisis, as it is able to navigate the oubliette of Wall Street trading to create searing and intimate drama. (Jan.)
From the Publisher

“Adam Haslett may be our F. Scott Fitzgerald. . . . A profound, strikingly intelligent story.” —The Washington Post Book World

“The first great novel of the new century that takes the new century as its subject . . . It’s big and ambitious. . . . It’s about us, now. All of us.” —Esquire
“Remarkable. . . . With gorgeous prose and the punch of a first-rate thriller.” —USA Today
“Funny and insightful. . . . The perfect book for our times. . . . Haslett has created memorable characters whose dysfunctional lives seem to embody the frenetic craziness and moral confusion of the era.” —“What We’re Reading,” National Public Radio

“It’s remarkable how successfully Union Atlantic continues the nuance of Haslett’s earlier [work]…. Swiftly and confidently, Haslett unwinds the ball of yarn that is the global financial crisis to reveal its core.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Exceedingly well written….A high-spirited, slyly astute exploration of our great bottoming out.” –The Boston Globe
“An enthralling, lucid and superbly confident work of art that grips from the first page as it puts the reader ringside at the heart of the financial crisis, revealing it finally as an emergency of the human heart and its societal urge….This is a big novel and a masterful debut by a writer whose talent is equal to his project, and whose project could not be more timely.” –Chris Cleave, author of Little Bee and The Other Hand
“Union Atlantic sets itself the daunting challenge of doing for late capitalism what Heart of Darkness did for late colonialism. It is a measure of Haslett’s extraordinary skill that he just about succeeds.” –The Financial Times
“Haslett has a deeply informed and imaginative grasp of history, and his book reads like a thriller, but it is, stealthily, much more than that: a chronicle of the collective corruption whose fallout we are, right this minute, enduring.” –O, The Oprah Magazine
“More than a financial page-turner….An ambitious literary work, filled with compelling characters, evocative prose and finely drawn social portraiture….The first serious fictional portrait of the bailout era….Decades from now, this fine novel will help readers understand the period we’ve just been through.” –The Wall Street Journal
“Haslett is a major talent….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.” –Bookslut
“[Haslett] has written the first great novel of the new century that takes the new century as its subject, but not simply because it takes the new century as its subject….Rather, Haslett has written a great novel because he has emerged in Union Atlantic as a great novelist, a mystery as abiding as any of the mysteries of the Fed—indeed, a mystery restored, even as the mysteries of the Fed are revealed.” –Esquire
"Union Atlantic is a bleak, brazen, beauty of a book."—Elle
“In Union Atlantic, Haslett presents us with a sweeping, blessedly clear vision of how we wound up in the economic cesspool….And he does it all with modesty and a depth of feeling for his characters that imbues, yet never seeks to explain away, their essence.”—GQ
"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....glow like poetry.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"Union Atlantic will possibly be the quintessential American novel of the first decade of the 21st century.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“[Haslett’s] gift for language, his unerring eye, his honesty and his compassion for his characters, many of whom are deeply flawed and deeply troubled, puts him in the company of the best authors writing in English today….In Haslett’s hands, there’s also humour, insight, and a shard of hope.” –The National
“[Union Atlantic] takes on the largest possible questions: the fate of the American empire and the meaning of America itself. The action moves with high Aristotelian perfection….Haslett is a skilled writer with a painfully acute feeling for the dynamics of family life in old New England families.” –The New Republic

The Barnes & Noble Review

When you describe the subject of Union Atlantic, people give an involuntary shudder. Haven't we read enough about the financial crisis in the news pages and the blood-red columns of our 401(k) statements? Nonetheless, Adam Haslett has written a brilliant -- yes, brilliant -- novel set among the economic wreckage that defines our youthful century. He's done for the crash what Claire Messud did for 9/11 in her 2006 novel The Emperor's Children, only he's done it better -- atomizing and occasionally satirizing a varied cast of characters touched by national events, with the penetrating intelligence and sympathy that made his literary debut so memorable.

Haslett came to notice amid much-deserved fanfare in 2002 with the publication of You Are Not a Stranger Here, a short story collection that dissected characters whose mental illness or trauma forced them and those they loved into tight corners of cognizance. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In the years since, he's been largely silent -- and hard at work.

He opens his novel in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war. In 1988, the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger plane. In Union Atlantic, a young man named Doug Fanning is in the warship's control room watching the blips on the screen. This real-life episode has often been cited to rue the reign of machines; an automated tracking system misidentified the plane as a fighter jet. But in Haslett's re-creation, we see the humans with their fingers poised over the buttons, their petty ambitions and niggling insecurities snowballing to result in the deaths of300 people. The catastrophe haunts Doug throughout the years -- how much is difficult for even him to gauge -- and sets the tone for a book in which grand and seemingly implacable events have very human causes.

Doug, reminiscent of the mysterious self-made ad man Don Draper in the TV series Mad Men, deserted his alcoholic single mother and a life of penury to join the Navy, then eventually took a job at Union Atlantic, a regional bank with aspirations for a wider reach. There, as head of foreign operations as well as the Pentagon-esque sounding "Department of Special Plans," he helps midwife Union Atlantic into its incarnation as "a global player." His military experience has hardened his natural impatience with people who, in his estimation, fail to grapple with the realities, and his hard-eyed ambition suits the CEO's more-more-more vision.

Doug meets his match in an unlikely person. Retired history teacher Charlotte Graves is gradually opening a mental distance with the rest of the world, yet can still see some things clear as day. One of those things is the immense McMansion that Doug, with his banking wealth, has erected in her little Massachusetts town on property that once belonged to her family. She is determined to reclaim it. Though this conflict is the fulcrum upon which a host of subplots and characters balance, Charlotte and Doug share scarcely any face time. Their hostility is mediated through human proxies and legal processes, a grand metaphor for so much of American life.

Charlotte's vendetta against Doug at first simply distracts him from the serious business of Union Atlantic, where a free-wheeling trader in Hong Kong is making money hand over fist for the bank, under an arrangement that "wasn't illegal, strictly speaking, but the lawyers and auditors knew enough to keep the details in the footnotes." Meanwhile, Charlotte's brother, Henry, who happens to be the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, is spending his time stilling the first seismic tremors of the financial landslide, even as he attempts to monitor his sister's increasingly erratic behavior. Into this human swirl is stirred Nate, an unmoored high school boy who, along with his friends, embody the aimless anxiety of suburban familial dysfunction. Nate's loyalties are torn between Doug, whom he finds sexually mesmerizing, and Charlotte, whose tutoring sessions devolve into prolix anti-capitalist rants that he finds endearing. Something's gotta give.

Union Atlantic is all muscle and discipline. It has none of the unpruned indulgence that burdens many social novels, whose authors' trenchant observations and editorials gum up the narrative works. The trouble with all that wit, usually, is that it numbs the pain, but Union Atlantic's nerves are exposed on every page. While Doug never fully disgorges his demons to us, both Charlotte's disintegration and Nate's painful passage to manhood are marvels of sympathetic characterization. In one of his stories in You Are Not a Stranger Here, Haslett remarks of a young doctor, "he felt like a sponge, absorbing the pain of the people he listened to." It's hard not to see Haslett himself in that description.

Which isn't to say that he doesn't find -- and leave -- his wicked mark, as when Doug's eyes fall on the species of groomed man-boy, "dressed in expensively faded jeans and a sweater pre-patched at the elbows," that populates comfortably hip hangouts.

He was leafing through a magazine, the white wires of his earphones trailing down into his pocket, a laptop open beside him. [Doug] saw these people everywhere now, these aging children who had done nothing, borne no responsibility, who in their bootless, liberal refinement would judge him and all he'd done as the enemy of the good and the just, their high-minded opinions just decoration for a different pattern of consumption: the past marketed as the future to comfort the lost. And who financed it? Who loaned them the money for these lives they couldn't quite afford with their credit cards and their student loans? Who else but the banks? And what was he reading? GQ or Men's Health? Some article telling him how to shave his nuts or pluck his eyebrows or sculpt his tender gut?

Union Atlantic ends where it started: on an uncertain foreign shore. Its ferocious force has dissipated a bit by the time it reaches landfall, but in a manner that feels inevitable. Haslett's novel is in its own way a landmark of this young century. --Sarah L. Courteau

Sarah L. Courteau is literary editor of The Wilson Quarterly.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385524476
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/9/2010
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Adam Haslett

ADAM HASLETT's short-story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. It has been translated into fifteen languages. He lives in New York.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 24, 1970
    2. Place of Birth:
      Porchester, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Swarthmore College, 1993; M.F.A., Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 1999; J.D., Yale Law School, graduating May 2003

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

A plot of land. That’s what Doug told his lawyer. Buy me a plot of land, hire a contractor, and build me a casino of a house. If the neighbors have five bedrooms, give me six. A four-car garage, the kitchen of a prize-winning chef, high ceilings, marble bathrooms, everything wired to the teeth. Whatever the architecture magazines say. Make the envying types envious.

“What do you want with a mansion?” Mikey asked. “You barely sleep in your own apartment. You’d get nothing but lost.”

Finden, Doug told him. Build it in Finden.

And so on a Sunday morning in January 2001, Mikey had picked Doug up at his place in Back Bay and they had driven west out of Boston in a light snow, the gray concrete of the overpasses along the Mass Pike blending with the gray sky above as they traveled the highway that Doug had traveled so often as a kid. It had been six years now since he’d moved back up to Massachusetts from New York. What had brought him was a job at Union Atlantic, a commercial bank whose chairman and CEO, Jeffrey Holland, had entrusted Doug with the company’s expansion. In the years since, his salary and bonuses had accumulated in the various accounts and investments his financial adviser had established, but he’d spent practically nothing.

“You’re pathetic,” Mikey had said to him once, when he’d come back to Doug’s apartment for a beer and seen the college furniture and books still in their boxes. “You need a life.”

A solo practitioner, Mikey had gone to Suffolk Law at night, while he worked at a bail-bond office. He lived with his girlfriend in one of the new condos in South Boston, six stories up and two blocks east of the house he’d grown up in, his mother still cooking him dinner on Sunday nights. He liked to call himself a well-rounded lawyer, which in practice meant he did everything but drive his clients to work.

A few miles short of the Alden town line, they turned off at the Finden exit onto a wooded road that opened out into the snow-covered meadows of a golf course, used at this time of year for cross-country skiing. They passed under an old, arched brick railway bridge and soon after reached the first stretch of houses.

The town was much as Doug remembered it from the days when he’d driven his mother to work here: mostly woods, the homes widely spaced, with big yards and long driveways, the larger homes hidden from view by hedges and gates. When they reached the village center, he saw that the old stores had been replaced by newer clothing boutiques and specialty food shops, though their signage, by town ordinance, remained conservative and subdued. The benches on the sidewalks were neatly painted, as were the fire hydrants and the elaborate lampposts and the well-tended wooden planters.

On the far side of this little town center, the houses became sparse again, one large colonial after the next, most of them white clapboard with black trim. They passed a white steepled church with a snow-covered graveyard and a mile or so farther along turned onto a dirt track that led down a gentle incline. A few hundred yards into the woods, Mikey brought the car to a halt and cut the engine.

“This is it,” he said. “Five acres. Up ahead you got a river. The other side’s all Audubon so they can’t touch you there. One other house up the hill to the right, and a couple more on the far side of that. Any other place, they’d put eight houses on a piece this size, but the locals ganged up and zoned it huge.”

Stepping out of the car, they walked over the frozen ground farther down the track until they reached the bank of the river. Only four or five yards across and no more than a few feet deep, it flowed over a bed of leaves and mossy rock.

“Amazing,” Doug said, “how quiet it is.”

“The town’s asking for two point eight,” Mikey said. “My guy thinks we can get it for two and a half. That is if you’re still crazy enough to want it.”

“This is good,” Doug said, peering across the water into the bare black winter trees. “This is just fine.”

The house took a year to complete: three months to clear the land, bury the pipes, and dig a foundation, another seven for construction, and two more for interior work and landscaping. For the right sum, Mikey oversaw all of it.

By the time it was done, the real estate market had progressed as Doug had foreseen. After the tech bust in 2000, the Federal Reserve had cut interest rates, making mortgages cheap, and thus opening the door for all that frightened capital to run for safety into houses. The attacks on 9/11 had only sped the trend. These new mortgages were being fed into the banks like cars into a chop shop, stripped for parts by Union Atlantic and the other big players, and then securitized and sold on to the pension funds and the foreign central banks. Thus were the monthly payments of the young couples in California and Arizona and Florida transformed by the alchemy of finance into a haven for domestic liquidity and the Chinese surplus, a surplus earned by stocking the box stores at which those same couples shopped. With all that money floating around, the price of real estate could only rise. Before Doug ever opened the front door, the value of his new property had risen thirty percent.

The first night he slept in Finden he remembered his dreams as he hadn’t in years. In one, his mother wandered back and forth along the far end of a high-school gymnasium, clad in a beige raincoat, her hands in her pockets, her head tilted toward the floor. They were late again for Mass. Doug called to her from beneath the scrub oak in their tiny backyard. Its bark peeled away, he saw veins pumping blood into branches suddenly animate and forlorn. A priest waited in an idling sedan. In the distance, he heard the sound of a ship’s cannon firing. Oblivious to all of this, focused only on the floorboards in front of her, his mother kept pacing. As the deck beneath him began to list, Doug rolled to his knees to break his fall.

He woke on his stomach, sweating. The wall was an uncanny distance from the bed, the pale-yellow paint someone had chosen for it beginning to glow dimly in the early-morning light. He rolled onto his back and stared at the stilled ceiling fan, its rounded chrome fixture as spotless as the deck of the Vincennes on inspection day.

Here he was, thirty-seven, lying in his mansion.

Reaching for the remote at his side, he switched on the TV.

.?.?. Israel denies Arafat request to leave West Bank compound, the CNN ticker began .?.?. Pakistan in discussions with U.S. to hand over chief suspect in murder of Wall Street Journal reporter .?.?. CT residents to pay $50 more per year for garbage collection after State Trash Authority loss of $200 million on deal with Enron .?.?.

His BlackBerry began vibrating on the floor beside his keys; it was his trader in Hong Kong, Paul McTeague, calling.

At Doug’s level of bank management, most people relied on underlings to handle recruiting, but that had never been his practice. He insisted on choosing his own people, right down to the traders. McTeague had been one of his. They’d met a few years ago on a flight to London. A Holy Cross grad, McTeague had grown up in Worcester and learned the business with a specialist on the floor of the NYSE. A rabid Bruins fan, his conversation didn’t extend much beyond hockey and derivatives. Twenty-eight and itching to make a killing. The human equivalent of a single-purpose vehicle. In short, perfect for the job. Usually Doug would have waited awhile before clueing in a new guy as to how he, in particular, ran the flow of information, i.e. avoiding intermediate supervisors. But he could tell right away that McTeague was his kind, and so he’d told him straight out: If you’ve got a problem and you’re getting hassled, just call.

Two months ago, when the head of the back office at the Hong Kong desk had left, Doug had installed McTeague as the temporary replacement, thus putting him in charge of all paperwork and accounting, and expanding the dominion of an employee with direct loyalty to him. The more raw information Doug could get stovepiped up from the front lines without interference from all the middling professionals, the more direct power over outcomes he wielded.

“You’re a genius,” McTeague said when Doug answered his phone. “The Nikkei’s up another two percent. Our economy’s still in the tank but Japanese stocks keep rising. It’s a thing of beauty.”

A month and a half ago, in early February, he and McTeague had been at a conference in Osaka. After one of the sessions, they had gone to Murphy’s, the bar where the Australians pretended to be Irish. They were about to call it a night when Doug saw a senior deputy in the Japanese Ministry of Finance stumble in with a Korean woman half his age. The man shook his head in resignation as his young companion made her way straight for the bar and ordered a bottle of scotch. Interested to see how things would play out, Doug ordered another round and he and McTeague settled in to watch. The argument in the corner grew steadily more heated. The woman was demanding something the man didn’t want to give, the Tokyo deputy apparently at wits’ end with his mistress. Eventually, after being harangued for half an hour, he stood up, threw cash on the table, and walked out of the bar.

That’s when the idea had occurred to Doug: the young woman might know something.

“Do me a favor,” he’d said to McTeague. “Comfort the girl.”

And a good job of it McTeague had done. At some point after they’d had sex, the deputy’s mistress told him that the Ministry of Finance had a plan. They were about to launch another price-stability operation. The Japanese government would buy up a boatload of Japanese domestic stocks, sending the Nikkei index higher and thus shoring up the balance sheets of their country’s troubled banks. It was a classic command-economy move, using public money to interfere with the market’s valuations. In the process, the Japanese government would hand a major loss to the foreign, largely U.S. speculators who had been shorting the value of their stock market for months.

The operation, of course, was secret.

And thus it was that in mid-February, Atlantic Securities, the investment banking firm that Union Atlantic had purchased and renamed two years earlier as part of its expansion, had become the one American firm to go from bearish to bullish on the prospects for the Japa?- nese economy. Under Doug’s supervision, McTeague had placed large bets on the Nikkei going higher, using Atlantic Securities’ own money. The resulting trading profits had been substantial and were still flowing in. It would be awhile yet before the Ministry of Finance’s plan would become public and there was a lot of money to be made in the meantime.

“So,” McTeague asked, eager as ever, “how much cash do I get to play with tomorrow?”

“We’ll see,” Doug replied. “Call me after New York opens.”

The chilled marble of the bathroom floor felt particularly solid against the balls of his feet. Two huge sinks in the shape of serving bowls, one for the master and one for his wife, were set beneath mirrored cabinets along the far wall. Beyond were two shower stalls with shiny steel heads that jetted water from the walls and ceiling. Opposite these stood a patio-size cross between a Jacuzzi pool and a bathtub, the whole thing decked in slate.

Walking to the window, Doug looked out across the front of the house. Mikey had done a good job: a stately, circular driveway, an enormous freestanding garage mocked up like a barn, and, surrounding it all, pleasing expanses of lawn. Through a row of bare maples that had been left up the hill to mark the property line, he could see a dilapidated barn and beside it an ancient house with weathered shingles, a listing brick chimney, and a slight dip in the long rear slant of its roof. It was one of those old New England saltboxes that historical preservation societies kept tabs on, although not too closely by the looks of it. Whoever owned it didn’t seem to be occupying the place. Weeds had risen in the rutted gravel drive. On the one hand, it was the farthest thing from a Mickey D’s and a strip mall you could get, just the sort of nostalgia for which people loved towns like this, casting the dead starlight of American landed gentry, dotted with graveyards full of weathered headstones and the occasional field of decorative sheep. Allowed to decay too far, however, it could cause a decline in the value of Doug’s property. If some absentee WASP who’d retreated to his compound in Maine thought he could just let a house rot like this, it would have to be sorted out. He’d put Mikey on it, he thought, as he slipped out of his boxers and stepped into the shower.

Downstairs, he passed through the mansion’s empty rooms and, finding the touch-screen keypad by the front door inscrutable, pushed an Off button and saw the screen announce: Fanning Disarmed.

Mikey was good. He was very good.

As he came down the front steps, the late-winter sun was just beginning to strike the side of his garage. Glancing over the roof of his car, he saw a woman in a blue ski jacket coming out the back door of the old house up the hill, which was apparently inhabited after all. Tall and rather thin, she had longish gray hair and a stiff, upright posture. With her were two large dogs, a Doberman and some sort of mastiff. It looked as if the animals were too strong for her, that she might be pulled down by them, but a yank of her arm brought them under control and they led her in orderly fashion along the stone path to the overgrown driveway. At first Doug thought she hadn’t noticed him at such a distance. But then, as he was about to get in his car, she glanced in his direction, and Doug waved.

She made no response, as if surveying an empty landscape.

Rude or half blind, he couldn’t tell. Driving slowly, he turned onto Winthrop Street and, lowering the passenger-side window, rolled up beside her.

“Good morning. My name’s Doug Fanning. The new place here—it’s mine.”

For a moment, it seemed she hadn’t heard a word he said and was perhaps deaf to boot. But then, abruptly, as if the car had only now appeared, she came to a halt. Bringing the dogs to heel, she leaned down to look into the car. The deeply lined skin of her face had the same weathered gray hue as the side of her house. Without a word, as if he weren’t even there, she sniffed at the air of the car’s interior; the Lexus he’d leased for the new commute was still pine fresh.

“Trees,” she said. “Before you came. All of it. Trees.”

And with that she stood upright again and kept walking.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Adam Haslett, Author

Q: UNION ATLANTIC has two main story lines. One is about a conflict over a piece of land between two neighbors, Charlotte Graves, a retired history teacher, and Doug Fanning, a young banker; the other is about the financial troubles at the bank where Doug works. How did these two events come together for you as you wrote the novel?
A: The characters are what came first. I created each of them separately before I ever knew how they would inhabit the same novel. The first was Charlotte's brother Henry Graves, the president of the New York Federal Reserve, whose first sections I wrote ten years ago. I'd become fascinated by this idea of the anonymous power that the Fed and other public and private bureaucracies have over our daily lives and I wanted to place a character at the pinnacle of one of those organizations, mostly to discover for myself how that kind of mind would work. That, in turn, gave me the idea of a troubled bank that the Fed would be regulating, and thus a banker, who became Doug Fanning. Charlotte was the other major figure and it was in writing about her as she lived alone with her dogs in the semi-rural town of Finden that I came up with the idea of this land her grandfather had donated to the town for preservation and her anger at it being sold and a mansion being built on it. The last to arrive on the scene, so to speak, was Nate Fuller, the grieving teenager, who comes to Charlotte for tutoring and ends up with a crush on Doug.

Q: Which of these four main characters do you identify with the most?
A: I identify with each of them in different ways. Charlotte's fierce convictions about the importance of history, literature, and art. Henry's conflicted belief in both good government and keeping the system afloat. Nate's sorrow and desire. And even the violence of Doug's ambition. You have to expose part of yourself to create a character deep enough for readers to care about. You try not to because it's hard and at times shameful, but then when you read those pages over and you see they have no life to them so you throw them away and force yourself to be more honest. So I suppose the answer is I see myself in all my characters, in their best moments and in their worst.

Q: Doug Fanning, who we first meet as a young sailor on a navy ship in the Persian Gulf back in 1988, and who goes on to a career in finance, is in many ways the most charged and conflicted character in the book. Some readers might see him as an indictment of the greed and moral bankruptcy that characterized the first decade of the 21st century. Was that your intention when you set out to write the novel?
A: No, it wasn't. And my hope, at least, is that readers will see by the end of the book that Doug Fanning is not simply a stand in for the avarice of the age. Indictment is easy enough, but it doesn't make for interesting fiction. Though he may not understand them very well at the outset, he has his reasons for acting as he does. Like everyone in the book, he wants intimacy of one sort or another. But the only way he knows how to seek it is by exercising power over others. I think that's true for a lot of men. And the two strands of American life he comes out of-the military and the corporate world-are places that embody that particular kind of machismo, which can be as much of a prison for those inside it, as it is an oppressor of those it takes as its object. As I see it, my job as a writer isn't to judge, but to take a reader as far inside as I can and let them dwell there.

Q: Charlotte's mental deterioration is both heartbreaking and chilling. She's such a proud woman, with such zeal, but her thoughts are turning against her. Can you talk about the role her two dogs, Sam and Wilkie, play in this unraveling?
A: As with many of the characters from my first book, solitude is a basic fact of Charlotte's life. The man she loved when she was young died many years ago and she's lived on her own ever since. It's her dogs who keep her company. And as we all know, owners speak to their pets. When I began writing Charlotte and figuring out how the intensity of her interior life would manifest itself, it occurred to me that she might hear the Mastiff and the Doberman speaking back at her. And because she is an upholder of what I see as a decaying tradition of humanism, I chose two figures who I think of as part of the superego, or guilt that lies behind American liberalism-the puritan preacher, Cotton Mather, and the black separatist, Malcolm X. They share a castigating, high-rhetoric that captures something of the violence Charlotte experiences in her own thoughts. And it's their voices, the unconscious of her own tradition, which grow louder throughout the book, until eventually she is overcome by them.

Q: How and why did you choose Boston and its surrounding suburbs as the backdrop for your novel?
A: The simplest answer is that that's where I grew up. First on the south shore, near Plymouth, and then later west of Boston. It's the landscape I know best, the one where my memories run the deepest. It's also a place where you feel the weight of the past quite easily, given its history, and the evidence of it, mostly in old buildings and houses. Charlotte and Doug's conflict over the land that Doug has built his house on comes out of that history. She sees him as a tasteless intruder; he sees her as an anachronistic snob. And they both have their points.

Q: Tell us a bit about the nature of Doug and Nate's relationship. What insecurities and/or vulnerabilities do they take out on each other?
A: Their scenes were the toughest to write. Nate's desire was the easier to understand. He's got a crush on Doug, and he falls for him with that teenage abandon which blows everything else out of the water and makes him willing to sacrifice a lot to be close to him. What Doug needs and wants from Nate is more complicated. The challenge for me was to write scenes in which a man who'd never been with another male sleeps with a guy without leaving the reader with the impression that he is 'coming out'. What Doug sees in Nate is weakness. But he also, without realizing it at first, sees part of himself. Which elicits both the desire to love and to destroy. It's a volatile situation. And a struggle to get onto the page. But I wanted very much to portray what I think of as a specifically masculine form of desire that's more about power than object choice. It's all around us, but the clichés of identity tend to keep it hidden in plain sight.

Q: Most of your novel is written in a fairly direct, realist manner, which in the intense scenes, particularly with Charlotte and the dogs, rises a few registers into more lyrical language. Can you talk a little about the style of UNION ATLANTIC?
A: For better or worse, I care a lot about holding my reader's attention. Perhaps obsessively so. I think of myself as crafting an experience for her or him. And so I want them with me as I move through a scene or a thought. Once your reader is with you, they're willing to go places, to take leaps. I think a writer has to earn that trust, in whatever style they are working in. And so ninety percent of the work goes into the sentences. Trying to create a rhythm in the writing that does more than just communicate information. That's why in the end you can never summarize a book. It exists in the sequence of words that it was written in and nowhere else.

Q: The novel takes place during the lead up to the Iraq War and it involves a bank that has taken excessive risk, thus endangering the whole financial system. These two issues, war and finance, have dominated much of the country's attention in the last decade. What is your intention to write a topical novel?
A: I wouldn't say I was aiming to be topical. I finished the book the week that Lehmann Brothers collapsed, so during the writing I was mostly worried that no one would know what the Federal Reserve was, or if they did they wouldn't want to read about it in a novel. That said, I do feel a responsibility as a writer to try to understand what it's like to be alive in the world today. We live in an insanely complicated and distracting culture which makes it very hard to slow down and think through the consequences of actions taken by individuals, governments, and corporations. I did feel a duty to try to dramatize at least some fraction of this maelstrom. You write the book you want to read, and I wanted to read a book that would bring together the micro and macro scale of contemporary life. That was my ambition, more than an attachment to any particular set of current events.

Q: You've now written one acclaimed short story collection and one novel. Will you return to short fiction after this publication. What's next for you?
A: Since I finished the book I've been working on non-fiction mostly. I've written one short story, but at the moment most of my ideas are for a new novel, the characters of which I've begun to think about and sketch a bit. Hopefully, I've taught myself something about how to write a novel with UNION ATLANTIC such that I'd be able to start the next one with a little more confidence. I emphasize the word, hopefully.

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Reading Group Guide

The discussion questions and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Adam Haslett’s debut novel, Union Atlantic, a deeply absorbing and accurate vision of American history as lived in our modern gilded age—the first decade of the twenty-first century.

1. The opening chapter puts Doug Fanning at the center of a real event in July 1988: the U.S. Navy’s shooting down of an Iranian passenger jet, killing all 290 people aboard. Why might Haslett have chosen to give his protagonist this particular backstory? How is Doug’s past navy career related to his present one in finance, and how is the historical moment of 1988 related to America’s later involvements in Iraq (p. 286–87)?

2. The plot’s central conflict results when an ostentatious mansion is built in a wealthy Boston suburb next to an old colonial house. Charlotte Graves’s house is “the physical form her opinion of the world had come to take” (p. 196–97). What does Doug’s house express about his opinion of the world (pp. 114–16)?

3. Charlotte’s dogs speak to her in the voices of Cotton Mather, the Puritan preacher, and Malcolm X, the black activist. Why might these two outspoken figures be chosen as Charlotte’s constant companions?

4. What are the emotions that motivate Doug Fanning? What traits are lacking in his character? To what degree is Doug’s present character rooted in his family history, as described on pages 46–51 and elsewhere?

5. Several of the novel’s major characters—Nate, Henry, Evelyn—have recently lost someone close to them; Charlotte has been mourning her lover Eric for years. Why does the emotion of loss play such a powerful role in this story?

6. Charlotte, an idealist who does not seem well equipped for the world that surrounds her, has been fired from her job as a history teacher. Do you find her admirable? Or does she come across as an irrelevant crank, a person out of touch with reality? What does it mean that her sense of time is “porous” (pp. 165, 325)?

7. Doug watches as “workers clicked away at their screens . . . until they no longer noticed the bargain struck between meaningless days and whatever private comforts they’d found to convince themselves the meaninglessness was worth it. But it was different if those workers were your muscles and tendons and by your will you directed their exertion, regulating the blood of cash. Then you weren’t an object of the machine. You were something different: an artist of the consequential world. A shaper of fact. Not the kind of author Sabrina wanted to be—some precious observer of effete emotion—but the master of conditions others merely suffered” (p. 191). What does this passage say about Doug, and about power as it is expressed in the workplace?

8. When Charlotte states her reason for refusing to move and for her legal suit against Doug, Henry admits to himself that she is “close . . . to the height of her powers” (p. 203). Do you agree that Charlotte needs to take a stand against “what’s going on in this country” (p. 202–203)? Does the novel suggest that it would be better if more Americans felt as passionate about their principles as Charlotte does?

9. The Fourth of July party given by the Hollands gathers together most of the characters in the novel, including Nate and his friends. What is the image of American wealth that emerges here, and what is most effectively satirical in the way Haslett has constructed the event (pp. 221–59)?

10. Evelyn Jones thinks of Henry Graves as “an old-schooler,” “a man who sounded as if he meant what he said” (p. 223). He believes in the meaning of words, in the public trust. On a moral spectrum, what is his position in the novel? Does the prosecution of Doug Fanning imply that the interests of the public trust are still being served? Or is the social vision of the novel a pessimistic one?

11. How does Nate explain to himself the meaning of his desire for Doug Fanning, and the fact that he is willing to betray Charlotte for him (p. 265)?

12. The monetary system, Henry says to Evelyn Jones, is “all anchored to nothing but trust. Cooperation. You could even say faith, which sometimes I do, though it’s certainly of an earthly kind” (p. 278). What is Evelyn Jones’s role in this system of trust, cooperation, and faith? How does she overcome the temptation to betray it? How is her brother’s death connected to her decision to tell Henry Graves about the cover-up at Union Atlantic (pp. 279–80)?

13. Haslett does an extraordinary job of showing how the monetary system works, and how a once local bank like Union Atlantic can become a conglomeration of dangerously unstable financial “products.” What do you find most illuminating about the novel’s focus on money and banking?

14. Doug’s mother and Nate’s mother are both single parents. Why does Doug decide to go and visit his mother? How are Doug and Nate similar to each other, and why might Haslett have chosen to show their situations as parallel?

15. What do you think of Charlotte’s relationship with Nate? She asks him, “Can you trust the pulse of life without becoming Mr. Fanning? Because he is the future. . . . His kind of rapaciousness, it doesn’t end. It just bides its time” (p. 263). Is Charlotte right about Doug, given Doug’s treatment of Nate? Does the end of the novel, with Doug in Iraq, confirm Charlotte’s opinion?

16. Charlotte sets fire to her house when she loses her case against Doug and realizes that she is also losing her mind. Why is it significant that she starts the fire by pouring gasoline on her books and sits to watch the flames engulf her bookcases (pp. 326–27)? What does the scene suggest about the American culture that Charlotte represents?

17. Reviewer Ron Charles wrote that Adam Haslett “may be our F. Scott Fitzgerald, an author capable of memorializing our crash in all its personal cost and lurid beauty” (The Washington Post, February 10, 2010). What is most effective, for you, about the way Haslett has conveyed what it’s like to live in our economically and ethically troubled times?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center e-newsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com.)

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 27 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 18, 2009

    Did not want to put it down

    Encompassing a range of topics and situations from success at work, disaffected citizenry, to sexual and familial relationships, this novel weaves a strong plot that made me not want to stop reading. Reading it each morning on the subway I almost missed my stop each time. It really pulls you in and answers modern personal questions that have crossed all of our minds.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 11, 2011

    Beautifully Written, Perfectly Paced

    Haslett's writing is swift and incisive. He takes you to the heart of our conflicted times. By playing off the two main characters, he examines the modern tension between traditionalist and progressive, one with a life bounded by rules, the other in a life of seizing opportunities. This is Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" for the 21st century.

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  • Posted January 16, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    I good read and variety of perspectives on contemporary events

    I really enjoyed Union Atlantic and found it to be quite a page turner. It didn't have the same level of depth of Adam Haslett's collection of stories in You Are Not a Stranger here, but I found it both thought provoking and entertaining at the same time. I enjoyed seeing the financial crisis for so many different perspectives and I think the author does a good job of probing the perspective of the regulatory establishment though the character of Henry--something we don't really see in the press. The story of the bank crisis in Union Atlantic is that of a minor problem that becomes a major problem in the cover-up--an idea that clearly transcends the financial crisis.

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  • Posted April 29, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    The Goldman Sachs hearings reminded me of this brilliant novel

    Watching the Congressional hearings into Goldman Sachs made me appreciate the prescience of Adam Haslett's brilliant novel, Union Atlantic.

    Haslett's novel features a young gun investment banker, Doug Fanning, whom we first meet in 1988 when he is stationed on a US naval ship that is escorting Kuwaiti tankers through the Straits of Hormuz. An Iranian passenger jet with 290 people on it was shot down by the Americans.

    The incident gets covered up, as well as the fact that Fanning failed to tell his commander that the jet was ascending, not descending as the commander was told. This incident leads Fanning to become the kind of man who later sets in motion a financial disaster that threatens the U.S. banking system.

    Fanning becomes a big success as an investment banker at Union Atlantic. He takes risks there as well, and as long as he produces big profits for the bank and in turn himself, he can cut all the corners he likes. His boss is willfully ignorant of Fanning's schemes.

    When Fanning builds a huge McMansion next to property owned by Charlotte Graves, he underestimates her. The land was owned by her grandfather, and Charlotte believes his house is obscene. Charlotte, a retired teacher, is eccentric, slipping into insanity. She believes that her two dogs are the incarnated Malcolm X and Cotton Mather, and they frequently share their conflicting advice with Charlotte.

    Charlotte ends up tutoring Nate, a teenage boy whose father recently committed suicide. He breaks into Fanning's home, and ends up in a dangerous sexual relationship with Fanning. Fanning wants Nate to help get Charlotte off his back, and he is willing to use Nate's vulnerability to get what he wants.

    When a colleague working for Fanning runs a scheme that unravels, Charlotte brother Henry Graves, the president of the New York Federal Reserve, becomes involved in trying to keep this from ruining the entire entangled U. S. economy. (Hank Paulson, anyone?)

    How Haslett weaves these stories together is a wonder. He doesn't write this novel, he crafts it. It took me along time to read this book because I frequently reread passages, they were that beautiful. Of Nate realizing that Charlotte needed him, he writes
    These last many months the intuition of others' needs had become Nate's second nature, as if his father's going had cut him a pair of new, lidless eyes that couldn't help but see into a person such as this this: marooned and specter-driven.

    His characters are vivid and complex. Nate is flailing about, wanting to be loved and willing to debase himself to do it. Charlotte is a genius, bordering on insane, and Fanning is amoral, sinking further into the morass.

    It is astonishing that a fiction writer created this dialogue in 2008, when Henry the NY Fed Chair says to the CEO of Union Atlantic
    "Let me start by saying that if you or your board is under the impression that Union Atlantic is too big to fail, you're mistaken. There's no question here of a bailout. If you go under, the markets will take a hit, but with enough liquidity in the system we can cut you loose. I hope you understand that." This, of course, was a bluff. Henry has already begun receiving calls from the Treasury Department.

    This novel one of the best books I have read this decade. The story is relevant and the characters are powerful. Haslett is a true craftsmen. If you like good fiction, read this.

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  • Posted April 20, 2010

    Uninteresting story and unlikeable characters

    Pulitzer prize-winning writer Adam Haslett's debut novel is an epic and multi-layered intricately detailed story. "Union Atlantic" is heavily planted within the banking industry. Helmed by Doug Fanning, a seemingly invincible higher-up within Union Atlantic, one of the country's most powerful banks, Doug skirts the rules and laws of banking, and has made billions for himself as well as the company.
    Building a sprawling mansion on a piece of land he bought from the town in Finden, Massachusetts, Doug soon finds his nearest neighbor, Charlotte Graves, has a serious beef with him living on what she believes to be her family's land. Charlotte has a beef with many things, and her two dogs often talk her through both sides of whatever issue Charlotte is dealing with at the moment.
    Meanwhile, a seventeen-year-old boy whom Charlotte is tutoring (more like forcing her unintelligible rants upon) lets his curiosity get the better of him and decides to explore Doug's mansion and finds both Doug and his house captivating. Nate, the teen, and Doug enter into a sexual relationship that is described quite graphically at times.
    Between Doug's personal life and professional dealings, he's not a likeable guy. He takes advantage of Nate repeatedly, using Nate's body and coercing him into stealing some of Charlotte's personal documents to use against her in the fight over the property Doug's mansion is built on.
    When an insider trading scam is discovered, Doug decides to go to great lengths to cover it up. To avoid the downfall of Union Atlantic, as well as the downfall of the financial community at large, Doug does everything he can to cover up the scam, falling sadly short.
    This book is not about happy endings. We find morally corrupt Doug hiding out in the Middle East, right where he was when the book ambiguously began. Nate finds himself being the predator to others that he imagines Doug was to him. Rather than be forced into an assisted-living facility by her brother, Charlotte allows her reality-challenged mind overtake her in the end.
    Difficult to read, and highly technical within the banking storyline, I found myself disappointed there was not more of a resolution to the problems these characters got themselves into. I'm not sure a single character in this book was likeable, and perhaps that is Haslett's intention.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2010

    Bad recommendation by WSJ

    Basis of story sounded interesting. Author's previous short stories were well received. I hate to not a finish a book so I got through it but it was weak. I won't even keep it on my shelf to avoid someone else having to endure it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2010

    Poor First Novel

    I've read numerous first time authors in the past and become a fan of their work. Sadly, Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic fails to capture my attention for future titles. Shallow plot, characters and overall execution led me to put the book down several times before putting it in my Goodwill gift box.

    I know Haslett's other writing is respected, but why any editor would recommend this story for publication is beyond me.

    Union Atlanta received a favorable review on NPR, which has been a good source for new books in the past, so I'm now equally disappointed in their review process.

    So, like the banking and investment community this book attempts to rip, I'm lacking confidence in both Haslett's fiction writing ability and NPR's reviews. Can we trust ANYTHING anymore?

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  • Posted March 29, 2010

    I expected far more from the first novel by Adam Haslett. At best it was average.

    This would be a book that I would not highly recommend to friends. The characters seemed to be rather transparent and predictable. The plot was pulled from some of the recent financial headlines and social trends, but were not

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2010

    Union Atlantic is a big dissappointment

    After loving "You are Not a Stranger Here" I was very dissappointed with this book. While the suject was very timely(actually written before the big financial meltdown), most of the characters were not that compelling. If I love a book, I read it every spare minute. With this one, I looked for other things to do with my spare time, and only picked it up to read every few days. His writing is still quite strong, but it clearly wasn't a page turner.

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