At its most simple level, "Union Atlantic" tells the story of a bank failure and a feud between neighbors over a contested piece of property. But the novel is so much more. Both stories have betrayal somewhere at their core; both are compellingly told and raise larger questions about what constitutes morality and whether any real principles of justice underpin our society. Both present the reader with a set of unforgettable and brilliantly drawn characters.
One of most unassuming of these, Henry Graves, is President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. At one point, he escorts a bank employee down to the basement of the Fed, to take a look at the physical gold that apparently provides a standard of value to our financial system. It sits in stacks in cages. In the context of this novel, this gold clearly has a larger meaning. "Add it all up," Henry says, "and it's no more than eighty or ninety billion worth. The wires clear more than that in an hour. All anchored to nothing but trust." Without that trust, we have no society; not even a loaf of bread can be sold or consumed. This novel explores what happens when fraud (in war, in love, in family) destroys that trust. It is thus not an easy novel to read. Indeed, there is a disturbing cynicism at its core. Though it is set in the year after Sept. 11, 2001, the editor explains that it was completed the week that Lehman Bros. fell; it is thus a weirdly (though bleakly) wise and prescient novel.
More than one of the chief characters is self-destructive. (I will limit myself here to what is implicit and present at the beginning, so as not to spoil the plot.) As the novel opens, a high school student whose empathy extends to both the two feuding neighbors has lost his father to suicide. As other amazon reviewers, less sympathetic to this book than I, have pointed out, Doug Fanning, a banker who builds a grotesque, ostentatious mansion he leaves mostly unfurnished, seems emotionally dead, out of touch with his own motives and desires. A former high school teacher, Charlotte Graves, who lives next door and loathes the monstrosity that Fanning has created, is so animated by a longing for revenge and a nostalgia for the meaning provided by great works of western civilization, a meaning scrubbed away by the money economy, that she is driven mad.
But in spite of the novel's tragic dimensions, it is also quite funny. Charlotte's madness causes her to hallucinate that her dogs are speaking to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X (these hallucinations are both beautiful and hilarious). And, finally, it opens the door to glimmers of hope (remember, I said, glimmers). If you stick with this remarkable novel, you will find them by the end. The feud, for example, ends with the hint, if not of forgiveness, at least of respect between worthy enemies whose goal was not really to destroy each other. Fanning's motives are unveiled, both to the reader and to himself. For another character, love is possible.
Also, Haslett is a remarkable writer. You may need to read some paragraphs twice, but they repay the effort. Each word is chosen with absolute care.