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Adam Haslett: Union Atlantic

I read this novel for two reasons. Firstly, it got a lot of good reviews and was published by Colm Tóibín‘s Tuskar Rock imprint. Secondly, I keep looking for interesting novels about the financial crisis that developed in the latter part of the first decade of the 21st century. Some are good, such as Cosmopolis, actually written before the crisis took hold, and some are less so, such as A Week in December. Sadly, this one falls into the less good category. Like Faulks, Haslett centres his story around a huge financial piece of trickery by a rogue trader which risks bringing the financial system crashing or, at the very least, causing a lot of grief to a lot of people. As we know from AIG and Nick Leeson (whose tricks are used in this novel), this is not necessarily far-fetched. But while it might make for a fascinating novel, it does not necessarily make for great literature.

This story concerns Doug Fanning. Doug Fanning was on board the USS Vincennes when it shot down Iran Air Flight 655. Indeed, his panic may well have been crucial to the disaster. While his naval activities frame this story and may well be key to some of his behaviour, they are not the most important part of the book. Since his discharge from the navy, he has worked for Union Atlantic, a large Boston-based bank, and helped take it from being a significant but local retail bank to being an important player in the world capital markets. Fanning, with the connivance of his boss, Jeffrey Holland, CEO of Union Atlantic, has sailed very close to the wind for the past few years, frequently breaking the law and, when not breaking it, stretching it to the limits, but has got away with it by smart timing and watching when the law is changing, under Bush’s massive deregulation of the banking sector in the US. But now he is going for the big one. He has been very clever about picking his team, selecting people who are loyal to him rather than the company and who are prepared, like him, to bend the rules. In the early part of the novel, he has Paul McTeague in Hong Kong. Fanning has learned that the Japanese government is going to let the Nikkei index rise for a certain period and then is going to let it fall. Fanning’s strategy is to play on this, making sure to get out of Japanese stocks before it starts to fall. You don’t really need to read much further in the book to know what is going to happen.

The book is not just about Fanning’s financial activities. There is one other key protagonist in this book – Charlotte Graves. Charlotte comes from an old New England family. She has never been married but did have an affair with Eric, who died when quite young. Her brother Henry is a widower and also a governor of the Federal Reserve covering, not surprisingly, Boston. Charlotte is an old-fashioned liberal. Her father had given a tract of land to the city (Finden) which, facing financial straits, had sold it to Doug Fanning, who has built a very large and, in Charlotte’s opinion, ugly house on the plot. Fanning had been very keen to buy a house in Finden as he grew up in the neighbouring and poor part of town, with his mother working for a cleaner for various households in Finden. Charlotte feels that the city had no right to sell the land her father gave to it and is going to fight the issue at law, without recourse to a lawyer. Of course, she finds some obscure law to help her. Throw in the usual stereotypes – drug-taking high school teenagers, a single-parent African-American woman determined to succeed, the odd nutty wife/mother and cowboy lawyer and a couple of good set-pieces, particularly the 4 July party that goes spectacularly wrong – and we are left with an enjoyable but not particularly original novel. One day, someone will write the Great Financial Crisis Novel but I have yet to read it.

Publishing history

First published 2010 by Tuskar Rock