As we all begin to get a real inkling of what the banking crisis, budget cuts and life under an austere coalition government really means to our daily lives I thought it might be worth drawing your attention towards a novel that cuts right to the heart of what brought us to this place and yet hasn’t received nearly enough attention. Plenty of books have been written about the crisis itself and there have been fictional treatments of it too but who really wants to read a book about bankers or banking at the moment?
After a stunning collection of short stories (You Are Not a Stranger Here), Adam Haslett, with an alarming prescience, wrote a debut novel (Union Atlantic) of 300 pages that managed to include 9/11, the Gulf War, race, sexism, sexuality and financial catastrophe without ever seeming to reach too far, tapping into something of the soul that caused it all to collapse so dramatically. Continuing the specificity of his shorter fiction Haslett focuses on a cast of three characters. Foremost amongst these is the Teflon-coated Doug Fanning who emerges from the Gulf War, where he was culpable in the downing of an Iranian passenger jet, with a combat ribbon, transforms the fortunes of a small bank through various nefarious practices to make it a global player and is rewarding himself with the construction of a ‘Greek Revival chateau’ near the area where he grew up, a mansion that is the novel’s real centre rather than the bank that lends it its title.
The neighbour to this ‘steroidal offence’ is Charlotte Graves, the book’s best creation, a former teacher forced from the classroom after parents complained that her teaching of history was too negative (“Yes. So was Dachau.”). Her grandfather bequeathed the land that Fanning has just bought from the town and she determines to regain the land and destroy the house, seeing in Fanning the embodiment of all that is wrong with America (“Because he is the future. One way or the other. His kind of rapaciousness, it doesn’t end. It just bides its time.”) Living in a remote farmhouse with her two dogs, Sam and Wilkie, her own physical and mental decline into old age are mirrored by that of the family’s house and barn and her ‘conversations’ with those two dogs are a brave conceit from Haslett that allow him to show her forthright views and unstable mind.
The third character is Nate Fuller, drifting through an adolescence of drug-taking and alcohol, receiving private tuition from Charlotte and about to become the link between the feuding neighbours. So we have Doug’s hubris and the battle to save his house and career as the plot at Union Atlantic unravels into financial catastrophe, Charlotte’s twin battle’s against mental decline and modern America with the possibility of redemption through Nate and Nate’s own turmoil with his awakening sexuality – all this would perhaps be enough but Haslett has the ambition to include even more; to unify his characters with something far more human than the plot of the novel. Each in their own way is dealing with love and loss and the tender way in which Haslett does this, which you might think would be drowned out by the mechanics of everything else I have mentioned, is perhaps the book’s greatest achievement. It isn’t a question of explaining away Doug’s villainy, Charlotte’s madness or Nate’s malleability but of making sure that these are not their only characteristics – three characters in three dimensions in three hundred-odd pages (along with all of the themes and ideas already mentioned) – to attempt, and largely achieve, all of that is nothing short of miraculous.
William Rycroft blogs at justwilliamsluck.blogspot.com