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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Before the Crash

An investment banker builds a mansion near the house of a tree-loving activist. What that face-off says about an America hurtling towards financial meltdown.

Written by Nandini Nair | Published: September 18, 2010 12:05:26 am

All-American characters breathe and writhe in Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic. Set in the early noughties,it tells a tale of Doug Fanning,Gulf War veteran and now investment banker,and Charlotte Graves,a professor-turned-recluse. If Doug’s fault stems from his belief in nothing,Charlotte’s flaw is that she believes too ardently. Their paths cross when he builds a mansion adjacent to her house in the town of Finden. Their differences freeze into a law suit; one must win and the other must lose — fatally. Their lives turn out to be not that distant,with Charlotte’s brother Henry Graves being president of the New York Federal Reserve. He is meant to keep an eye on the investment bank,Union Atlantic,of which Doug is a senior manager.

We often see the characters through the eyes of 17-year-old Nate,trying to make sense of his life and inclinations. He is struck by the banker’s shiny,cropped hair,wide jaw and dimpled chin. He stares,riveted by “the muscles of his chest and shoulders…like a boxer leaning in to his opponent.” If Doug’s appearance grabs Nate’s attention,Doug’s looks are also central to his own sense of self. In his constant search for control,they become his first weapon; superficiality works fine for him. He skims the surface of life never wanting to get his hands dirty or his shirt crumpled. He prefers possibility,with its promise of hope,to particularity with its “terminal air”. As a soldier during the Gulf War,he fervently wishes to be gone from “these wretched foreign places with all their filth and poverty,to be back in America” living in his ‘Greek Revival château’.

“Trees. Before you came. All of it. Trees,” says Charlotte,making her dramatic entry into the story,led by her two teeth-baring dogs. In many ways the opening line reveals her loyalties. An intellectual and activist,she sees chainsaws as murderers and felled trees as corpses.

To avenge the murder of her land,she is determined to evict Doug and raze his house. Her dislike for him is not personal,it is a “patriotism of ideals”. She lives in a world of good and bad,where relativism feeds individualism alone,not society. She frets to her student Nate,“But this world of opinions. As if the world has no discernible qualities. As if there were no history. It’s a disaster. It’s an abandonment of the Enlightenment. All in the name of individualism.” The battle between the two is not so much a face-to-face confrontation as it is about “individual humanity pitted against global marketplace”.

Doug and Charlotte often appear too stereotypical of their breed. When Haslett writes of Doug,“But this was weakness. He would not be weak”,he is writing of all of Wall Street and the market. When he describes Charlotte as a “lone soldier against an army,” he is speaking of every individual who has taken on a cause. These simple categories

are too predictable to

be impressive.

But,finally,their individual histories elevate them from mere types to real people. Haslett creates rich back stories,including family accounts,which explain who they are today.

This book deals with dysfunctional and imperfect relationships. Nate is the only person who is close to Doug and Charlotte. Usually lost in a cloud of marijuana,his interactions with them throw light on their nature. He finds refuge in Charlotte and a deep fulfillment with Doug. Coming out of a troubled childhood,he finds an odd comfort in these adults,even if this at times discomfits the reader.

Haslett weaves in contemporary events with a deft and authoritative hand. His short-story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here (2002),was a New York Times bestseller and his control over prose is unquestionable. Written in 2008,the victory of Union Atlantic is how it appears to predict the September Wall Street crash. It is a swift and effortless read,telling an authentic story about today’s America.

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