Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The History teacher

Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic captures the zeitgeist of an indulgent, anxious decade

The following review was published last week on the Books page of the History News Network.

In 1989, Tom Wolfe published one of his provocative magazine pieces, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," in which he took American novelists to task for their insularity and refusal to engage the great social issues of their time in accessible, informed prose. As is often the case with Wolfe, there was an element of self-promotion in his argument, as he had published Bonfire of the Vanities two years earlier, and was repositioning himself from New Journalist master of non-fiction to Balzac-style master of fiction. Wolfe followed up those novels with A Man in Full (1998) and I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004; Wolfe's next novel, tentatively titled Back to Blood, reputedly about immigration and set in Miami, will reportedly be published later this year). All through this period, Wolfe has sustained and even extended his argument, engaging in critical exchanges with prominent figures like John Updike, Norman Mailer, and John Irving (a writer with whom he would seem to have a lot in common).

I myself have long been a fan of Wolfe's work, fiction and non-fiction, even when it has veered toward unintentional self-parody. It's hard not to be seduced by the (sometimes mal
icious) glee in his work. The exclamatory points! the italicized phrases! the onomatopeeeeeeeia that makes his prose sing!

But if you're looking at a quietly impressive example of the kind of work Wolfe has been championing in the last 20 years, a novel that effectively makes a case for the novel in the 21st century, it would be hard to find a better candidate than Adam Haslett's Union Atlantic. This book, Haslett's second, follows his 2003 National Book Awar
d-nominated collection of stories, You Are Not a Stranger Here, by seeking to capture the zeitgeist of this decade. In Haslett's hands, that zeitgeist is one in which Americans seek to gratify their passions -- money and sex, among others -- in the shadows of distant, but looming, geopolitical and economic upheaval. The shape of dread is more clearly defined for some characters than it is for others, and some manage to find joy and meaning in their lives despite it. But the sense of Edwardian rot that so many social and political observers have been chronicling (Thomas Friedman, Kevin Phillips, et. al) here get embodied in vivid, three-dimensional people whose lives intersect in the fictional town of suburban town of Finden, Massachusetts (think Lincoln or Weston).

The catalytic figure in these intersections is Doug Fanning, whom we meet as a young naval recruit in a 1988 prologue set in the Persian Gulf, where he plays a dubious role in a hushed-up patrolling operation. The main action of the novel then moves to the aftermath of 9/11, w
hen Fanning, now a buccaneering international financier for the Union Atlantic investment bank in Boston, buys himself a McMansion in Finden to salve the wounds of his troubled childhood (his abandoned mother cleaned houses in the town he now inhabits). His neighbor, a WASPish former high school history teacher named Charlotte Graves, is outraged by the house and everything it represents. She believes the land Fanning's house sits on was sold to him illegally by the town, an assertion that no one -- including her own brother, Henry, president of the New York Federal Reserve -- takes seriously. It turns out that Charlotte has a real case. It also turns out that she is slowly losing her mind. The owner of a Doberman and a Mastiff to keep her company, she hears the former talk to her in the voice of Malcolm X and the latter in that of Cotton Mather. (The literary ventriloquism involved here is one of the book's amusing pleasures.) The lives of Charlotte and Fanning are bridged by a Nate Fuller, bright but rootless gay adolescent who shuttles between the two houses and sharpens the confrontation between two adversaries that will culminate in a conflagration -- and some moments of high humor.

But the brisk narrative pace of Union Atlantic is only one of its pleasures. Perhaps the most impressive, in a Wolfean sense, is the lightly worn sense of authority Haslett demonstrates on topics that range from cutting-edge military hardware to the nuances of the Nikkei. There are times in
the book where he sounds like Paul Krugman: "Thus were the monthly payments of the young couples in Arizona and Florida transformed by the alchemy of finance into a haven for domestic liquidity and the Chinese surplus." Haslett knows the precincts of suburban ennui of modern-day teenagers no less than the habits of mid-twentieth century heroin addicts (Charlotte's one true love is seduced away by the needle). You get the sense in reading this book that he's really taken the time to digest the rhythms of everyday life for a Faulknerian county.

That intimacy extends to the psychological realm as well, where Haslett manages the difficult trick of viewing his characters with empathy and clarity at the same time -- achieving, in the words of Charlotte's lover, "a lucid sympathy." That's as true of the aspiring African American office worker who plays a pivotal role in the plot as it is the world weariness of the immensely powerful Henry Graves. Even when his characters are crazy or repellent, they can nevertheless invite identification.
Fanning is amoral at best and reprehensible at worst, but when an over-privileged Volvo-driving woman clogs traffic in the center of town, this naval veteran's less than entirely accurate complaint -- "For you, we killed. For this" -- has a ring of truth. Even as she descends into madness, Charlotte can still serve up zingers that illuminate American fecklessness. "You have no idea what it was like at school at the end," she tells her brother of her teaching career. "How the content remained the same while the meaning of the exercise changed so entirely. From enlightenment to the grooming of pets."

Union Atlantic is a relatively short book, and it betrays little of the sprawl or overt ambition of one on the scale of The Bonfire of the Vanities. But you finish it feeling like you've really lived with these people for a while, and that you understand them in a way you simply could not any other way. Journalism can explain and movies can show, but realistic fiction reveals how it feels to live in a particular time and place in a way that remains both singular and necessary. Haslett doesn't know what's really happening to our country better than anyone else; indeed, much of what he reveals has been described by others in one way or another. But that, in a way, is the value of his work: he captures a shared perception of a time in a way that gives pleasure to those who lived it and a testament for those who will follow. Such is the way history gets made -- and truly learned.