Union Atlantic

Union Atlantic

by Adam Haslett

Il destino di un giovane manager di banca e quello di un'anziana insegnante entrano in rotta di collisione alla vigilia del crollo finanziario. Un romanzo che disegna in modo magistrale il profilo di un'epoca febbricitante ed esaltata, alla ricerca di una verità cui aggrapparsi. Dall'Autore finalista del premio Pulitzer e del National Book Award.  See more details below


Il destino di un giovane manager di banca e quello di un'anziana insegnante entrano in rotta di collisione alla vigilia del crollo finanziario. Un romanzo che disegna in modo magistrale il profilo di un'epoca febbricitante ed esaltata, alla ricerca di una verità cui aggrapparsi. Dall'Autore finalista del premio Pulitzer e del National Book Award.

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.)
Sarah L. Courteau

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.

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

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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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