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Adam Haslett's 'Union Atlantic'

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In the Great Depression, it was Steinbeck capturing the pain. In the “greed is good” 80s, it was Tom Wolfe with “Bonfire of the Vanities” capturing the greed.

In this time — our time of Enron and Madoff and bonus billions and bailout — we’ve been waiting for the author, the fiction, to show us what we’ve been up to. Or down to.

Adam Haslett’s new “Union Atlantic” is a start. Bankers acting badly. Old morals and principles, rolled over. Super McMansions and high drama in the vaults of the Federal Reserve.

This hour, On Point: reading our grandly grubby times in Adam Haslett’s “Union Atlantic.”


Joining us first from Washington is David Kirkpatrick, reporter for The New York Times covering money and politics.

Adam Haslett joins us from New York.  Author of the new novel “Union Atlantic,” his collection of short stories, “You Are Not a Stranger Here,” was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award and the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.

Read an excerpt from “Union Atlantic” at Esquire.com.

And from Hanover, N.H., we’re joined by Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst and senior editor at The Atlantic. He’s the author of  “Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900,″  a thematic history of the Gilded Age, and editor of the anthology “Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America.”

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  • JP


    Let me get this straight…

    Dems took money from Wallstreet, but aren’t catering to Wallstreet enough to please Wallstreet…

    so Wallstreet is going back to Republicans because they expect Republicans to serve them hand-and-foot…

    kind of tells you something about Wallstreet and Republicans, doesn’t it?

  • james wiker

    One effective way of getting the financial lobby to where we need them to be [the governed and not the governors]is to eliminate the tax deduction for their lobbyists.

    This has the added benefit of decreasing our federal deficit.

    I would further venture to say that everything wrong with our government can squarely be laid on the doorstep of exponentially growing K Street, our so-called representatives, both beholden to lobbyists and lobbyist wannabes.

  • gus

    Interesting intersection of the end of campaign finance reform “companies are citizens”, faux Tea Party populism powered by FOX and talk radio (communications arm of the Republican party) and Wall street greed.

    Result: The public thinks Obama and the Democrats are the reason the economy is in bad shape. Amazing.

    The Democrats and democracy have been completely out maneuvered by this unholy trinity. Democrats get power for one year and are blamed for the past eight. I guess that’s the power of ‘the big lie’.

    This is simply another example of the permanent campaign Karl Rove articulated. Along with his dream of a permanent Republican majority. Hardball win-by-any-means politics. We may be on the brink on one party rule with major corporations calling the shots.

    It’s terrifying.

  • Greg L

    Can we ask Mr. Haslett if he actually got to hear about such conversations between the rich and powerful, as we just heard him excerpt? (Or how did he imagine them so cynical and evil?)

  • http://www.johncotter.net/ John

    There is an excellent piece on Union Atlantic and finance in fiction (also touching on Jonathan Dee’s new “The Privileges” at Open Letters this month:

    well worth a look—

  • John

    Jack’s book on the Gilded Age was very interesting. He discusses how the fallacy that corporations are people came about.

  • Ellen Dibble

    “There but for the grace go I.”
    Somewhere along the way I learned in growing up to avoid being “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” in other words don’t get involved with trouble makers.
    The same, I am hearing, goes for the very rich. Being a trouble maker goes along with the turf.
    Don’t go there.

  • http://www.lit.org/author/fritzwilliam F. William Bracy

    It doesn’t sound as though it is quite The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom, but I’ll probably give it a try.

  • C M Wardem

    It seems we are doomed to repeat history because we don’t seem to learn from it. Only this time, instead of being devastating, it could be calamitous!
    There is something wrong with a society that idolizes the superficial, i.e., the beautiful, the expensive, the sensational, the very rich, etc. The price we pay
    is the possibility of a world that works for everyone. I don’t get it and it’s heartbreaking.

  • http://www.lit.org/author/fritzwilliam F. William Bracy

    “… in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Posted by Ellen Dibble

    I enjoy your comments, Ellen, but you’ve hit upon my pet peeve. “The wrong place at the wrong time” would put me somewhere outside of or not exactly in the “place” I shouldn’t be in.

    Here, let me put it this way: A huge safe is on its way down the side of a skyscraper, and I’m standing on the sidewalk directly below it. If I’m in the “wrong place” which I clearly am, then I’d be more than lucky to be there at the “wrong time” … more like, any time except the time that safe hits the pavement.

    The phrase should be: “In the wrong place at [precisely] the right time,” because if I’m there at just the right time, then when they lift the safe they’ll find that I’ve become a permanent part of the sidewalk at that point.


  • Brett

    “Jack’s book on the Gilded Age was very interesting. He discusses how the fallacy that corporations are people came about.” -John

    Thanks, John. I’ve decided to get that book; it’s sounds interesting

  • Brett

    “Union Atlantic” sounds a bit like what I used to call the “yuppie redemption novels” from the 1980′s

  • MJ Olson

    This topic, and the ensuing discussion, keep reinforcing how two deeply rooted enabling assumptions that have been creeping into our political culture and debate since the cold war started. This book, as have others, recognizes one factor: the control big money exerts over our lives, independent of majority rule. President Eisenhower was the harbinger of one of the other factors, the industrial – military complex.

    The constitution is a body of principles formed around individual as well as collective freedom & responsibility, and the need for majority rule that does not run roughshod over a minority.

    To me it seem that these principles are being subverted by two enabling factors: the corporate status as in individual, and the economics of war fighting capability influencing politics:
    1) when corporations are recognized as having the rights of an individual, when in effect they are actually a collective of people, the corporate entity becomes capable of exercising equivalent or more power in our political process as does each of our 50 states.
    2) the “volunteer military” has actually resulted in the abrogation of responsibility each individual should have for being involved deeply and intimately in issues of national defense. As a result, corporations are now engaged in warfare all over the world because war is profitable.

    As a professional educator, it is clear to me that enabling skills and knowledge have more lasting influence on the learning of new primary applied knowledge and skills than mere focus on the primary goals. It appears equally true to me that our political debate is being influenced by a corruption in the prime enabling value of “responsibility” in our constitution.

    I do not see how this can be resolved by our current business as usual political processes. There really is only one tool, a constitutional amendment that articulates what “individual responsibility” is, and is not, and what every person’s responsibility requires.

    It is really simple: and individual entity is a person who has arrived at majority age and meets the “1 person, 1 vote” criteria (that eliminates corporation’s capability to present as a person with all the rights of a person). Secondly, every able-bodied person must meet a prime responsibility for national defense by serving in active military duty for a specified number of years (at least two) after reaching the age of majority or graduating from high school. After mandatory service everyone remains on inactive reserve and eligible to be called to duty in the event of any active hostile fire combat sustained longer than 90 days. Priority involuntary call-up to hostile duty must be based on highest net worth first, and all private contractors participating in any active/hostile fire combat roles must be prohibited. Furthermore, after 90 days, all profit on warfare and supplies must be suspended across the entire military supply chain, including intelligence activities that are related to the warfighting arena.

    I think these changes will, in time, fundamentally alter how corporations, some of which are wealthier than many states, can behave in our political processes. And the neglected non-productive drain on our GDP, military expenditures, are constrained from going to war as a matter of political routine and corporate profit.

    I believe we need to establish a simple “individual freedom and responsibility” constitutional amendment which can enable these fundamental changes to our democracy.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Sorry I hit a pet peeve, Mr. Bracy. I get it that there are huge limits to that little saying about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Right now it seems it’s a mistake to be pretty much anyplace. But some things can be foreseen and can be avoided. When it comes to the unscrupulous elements of the uber-culture in this country, I can well imagine this scenario: I get a good education, marry someone who’s totally trained to be a high technocrat in the banking world, and being pretty much male chauvinist by tradition and training, he does not explain his business to his wife. He “compartmentalizes” his affairs. Woops, double entendre there. Anyway, the wife is under that block of cement that is falling from the skyscraper and doesn’t know it. She is blissfully ignorant, or is she implicated.
    Mostly I think of “being in the wrong place” when I deal with trial transcripts, and it is terribly apparent that if there were more wholesome afterschool activities for certain parts of the population, plenty of kids wouldn’t end up in court, and so on and so forth. The kids can seem to be going like moths to lightbulbs, seeking out the wrong place.

  • gina

    “As a professional educator, it is clear to me that enabling skills and knowledge have more lasting influence on the learning of new primary applied knowledge and skills than mere focus on the primary goals.” — MJ Olson

    Sorry professor, I can’t even parse that sentence, but I do agree with another of your ideas: two years of mandatory military duty, or other public service for conscientious objectors. The only reason Iraq and Afghanistan is on the public radar at all is the large number of middle-class (and often middle-aged) National Guard troops there, many of whom never thought their weekend army games were preamble to actual combat duty, never mind multiple deployments. Our current “all-volunteer” military is in reality an economic draft. We all need to have a stake in what our military does, not just the families of those disadvantaged American kids whose only path to higher education (or even a paycheck) is through enlistment. If the children and grandchildren of politicians, bankers, industrialists, etc. were expected to take part in all our military adventures, cooler heads might occasionally prevail.

  • John

    two years of mandatory military duty — Can we draft corporations as they are people?

  • gina

    “two years of mandatory military duty — Can we draft corporations as they are people?” — John

    Aye, there’s the rub! Strange citizens, who neither bleed nor die. Unlike mere mortals, corporations are never obliged to spend any time behind bars, either.

  • XXXX

    “Crack the whip!” LMAO! Ok tough-guy Dems! You go right ahead and “Crack that whip!” Then you’ll wake up with your heads sown to the carpet the next morning! LOL! You guys crack me up!

    The American People don’t want the liberal/fascist/Communist crap coming out of this administration, and it’s going to go far beyond whinging or voting if they try to “push it.” We’re FED UP, don’t you get it? We can’t be PUSHED anymore!

    You go ahead and try to “Break Bad” on common working people! I DARE YOU!

  • cory


    “The American people don’t want the liberal/fascist/ communist crap coming out of this administration…”

    1. Fascism and communism are at absolutue opposite ends of the political spectrum, one at the far right and one at the extreme left. So which is it? Obama wants the government to own all means of production (fascism), or he wants communal ownership of all property (communism). I’ll just assume you ditched out on school when your eighth grade government class explained the difference.

    2. It is pretty scary when someone who clearly doesn’t know what they are talking about threatens violence against the rest of us. Who exactly is fed up? Who is pushing them?

    3. Why did Democrats win the White House and sizable majorities in congress if the American people don’t want Democrats to enact their policies? Obama had in his past expressed interest in both single payer health care and later in a public option. These were not suprise positions he sprung on us after he was elected.

    4. Finally, we live in a democraric republic. If you don’t like a politician, vote for someone else the next time around. Don’t be a neanderthal and threaten to hit people with your club. Grow up, evolve, and join the rest of us in civilization.

  • http://curehunter.com Alex

    Does anyone have a source for the “40% of the GDP comes from finance” comment?

    This seems to say 20%:

  • peter nelson

    two years of mandatory military duty, or other public service for conscientious objectors.

    Wrongo! – government slavery, no matter what you call it, is still slavery. Military (or even civilian) draft violates all the basic principles of individual liberty that this country was founded on. The fact that we’ve had a draft in the past means nothing – we’ve had slavery and Jim Crow in the past, too, even though they also violated the moral foundations of our country.

    Also, conscientious objector status required that you certify that you are morally opposed to war. What if you’re not morally opposed to war, but you ARE morally opposed to killing people who never attacked us?

    Finally, I would point out that 58,000 Americans and about 1.5 million Vietnamese were killed in the Vietnam War, which was fought while we still had a draft. So drafts provide zero protection against stupid, self-destructive military adventures.

  • peter nelson

    1. Fascism and communism are at absolutue opposite ends of the political spectrum, one at the far right and one at the extreme left.

    That’s only if you accept a simplistic left-right political spectrum. We all use that for a conversational convenience (i.e., I say I’m “to the left” of Obama), but it’s a rhetorical device.

    Also keep in mind what a “spectrum” is – red and blue are at the far ends of the visible light spectrum but that doesn’t make them “opposite”.

    In fact, fascism and communism have far more in common than they have in difference. They are both totalitarian; they both allow only one ideaology and brook no domestic criticism. And with regard to economics – in Communism industry is state-owned; in fascism it’s privately owned, but controlled by the state for national purposes and goals. Technically the PRC is fascist, not communist. But notice how they were able to make that transition without ever passing through some moderate territory that a simplistic left-right spectrum would imply.

    3. Why did Democrats win the White House and sizable majorities in congress if the American people don’t want Democrats to enact their policies?.

    Because they were excited/inspired by his rhetoric? Because they were fed up with the Republicans? Because we were in crisis and they were clutching at straws? Because Obama out-organized the GOP in the election? Because they actually thought the Dem’s would do something – and now they’re disabused of that fantasy.

    If you’re looking for some sort of ideological or intellectual consistency from the voters, I don’t think that’s reasonable. In a free country people have a right to vote for any reason they want, including getting caught up in the emotion of the moment.

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