This is my review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett.
An American damaged by childhood and Gulf War traumas becomes a corrupt investment banker on the brink of what we know to be a major financial collapse. He comes into conflict with a well-connected but eccentric, slightly demented neighbour who sees the building of his grandiose mansion on a once rural riverbank as a symbol of all that is rotten in the state of America. This sounds like the recipe for a good read.
Drawn to this novel by a glowing newspaper review and interesting dust jacket blurb, I was soon disappointed. The warning signs come as early as the prologue, in which the author uses flashbacks and digressions to skirt round a US naval incident in the Gulf, rather than transporting readers into the heart of the drama. I did not mind the slow pace of the plot, but there are too many overlong minor scenes, such as Nate's druggy dealings with his mates, and the issue of his "being gay".
The dialogues tended to grate on me because they are unnatural. Although I realise that Charlotte Graves is meant to be an eccentric elderly lady, the monologues inflicted on her student Nate, and the diatribes of her two talking dogs (especially the bigoted preacher Wilkie – yes, I know it sounds odd) are tedious and very hard to follow, adding nothing I could see to an appreciation of what is rotten with current US society, which I took to be the point of the book.
The book is only occasionally moving – much less than it should be, as when we learn that Nate is haunted by the fact that he might have averted his father's suicide if he had looked for him further. And why not use the space to give us more insight into the main character, the financier Doug Fanning?
Haslett slips frequently into passages of reflective, philsophical creative writing which left me cold because they seem too "studied". He mentions Joyce at one point, so I wonder if he was attempting "stream of consciousness" at the points when the sentences become very long, rambling wildly from one point another. After one example too many of this on page 120 of the hardback, I decided the book was not worth reading.
BUT then it improves – for a while. From Part 2, the plot speeds up and there are some humorous and well-written scenes, in particular the court hearing of Charlotte's dispute over Doug's mansion, with a neat twist at the end, and also the observation of Henry's relationship with his sister Charlotte, his irritation yet affection, as she feeds him baked beans and gives the dogs prime steak because one of them "demands" it.
However, the dramatic potential of Doug's inevitable fall as a cheating financial dealer is missed. The book sputters on like a damp squib at the end with a few blandly descriptive chapters which shed little further light. Just the odd passage, like the evocation of "that nowhere place" the Arabian desert, on page 285 reveals a talent for writing which is in general absent.
I am left feeling that this story has the ingredients to be good, but needed much more attention to "narrative drive" and to clarity of important ideas and insights for it to be successful.