Union Atlantic, By Adam Haslett

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The Independent Culture

Adam Haslett is the author of an acclaimed short-story collection, You Are Not A Stranger Here, which concerned itself with the havoc wreaked by mental illness. Union Atlantic is his debut novel and psychological disarray also features heavily. Haslett chooses a theme, however, which – while by no means exclusive to US writers – is a long-standing concern over there: new money versus old. Doug Fanning is a Navy veteran become a star in finance, a player in the Union Atlantic investment bank. With his riches, Doug builds a house in the wealthy Boston suburb of Finden, a Greek Revival château. It turns out to be sited on land that Charlotte Graves's father left in trust to the town, which is especially unfortunate because Charlotte is an ageing WASP with an almighty sting in her tail.

The outcome of the ensuing litigation is uncertain, given each adversary's instability. The Nikkei index is moving against Doug and his naval career has exposed his disastrous unsoundness in a crisis. Charlotte, meanwhile, believes her dogs are talking to her. Her mastiff Samuel has assumed the register of a Puritan preacher, while Dobermann Wilkie has opted for Malcolm X.

When he describes interior turmoil, Haslett takes flight. Decades ago, the love of Charlotte's life died tragically young. Haslett captures her bereft state in prose that conveys the intense rushes and pauses of her mental landscape: "To forget a bit, the past and herself, that's all she'd wanted then. To move unsurveilled through time's ceaseless unfolding. The critical eye closed, the narrative intelligence laid to rest. Repetition's welcome victory over event." Another masterly passage - among many others - details the inner journey of Charlotte's student Nate, when he eats psilocybin mushrooms with his slacker friends.

Haslett has carried out extensive research into the financial markets, as well as drawing on knowledge of the preppy scions of the East Coast. His novel is of unashamedly traditional design, offering lengthy back-stories for all the main characters, with sub-plots and climaxes carefully inscribed. It has, nonetheless, personality quirks of its own. The core plot introduces itself with a stridency that conflicts with the literary demands for nuance. Similarly, the death of Charlotte's soulmate and Doug's emotionally deprived upbringing are, perhaps, more prominent than they need be. Most importantly, the strand dealing with major bank fraud is left to dangle uncertainly. It stops short of the irony and satire this subject deserves, while the bankers' incursion prevent the other cameos from accumulating into a meditation upon ordinary American life, along the lines of The Corrections or Netherland.

All the same, these issues of construction and intention do not detract from Haslett's descriptive powers and consummate empathy with his troubled cast. They make reading Union Atlantic an absorbing, sometimes sublime, experience.

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