A more perfect ‘Union’

Posted on 18 Feb 2010 at 10:58am
By ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

Gay author Adam Haslett writes a book you can bank on


AUTHOR, AUTHOR Pulitzer finalist Adam Haslett reads from his new novel at the DMA Friday. (Photo by Bridgette Lacombe)

ADAM’S EVENING
With Jonathan Ferris at the
Horchow Auditorium at The DMA, 1717 Harwood St. Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. DM-ART.org.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said "there are no second acts in American lives." But Adam Haslett isn’t even 40, and he’s already well into his second act with an open-ended run. Haslett gained attention for You Are Not a Stranger Here, his 2002 collection of short stories that was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. It took him the better part of the decade to produce his follow-up, his first novel, Union Atlantic.

"The main difference [between a short story and a novel] is the social scope, and working with multiple points of view," Haslett says. "A short story is a more lyric form, so you are more acutely aware of each beat and the [way to] the end. A novel is not going to be sustained by a good ending. In the end, the characters are a more outward looking. And there’s more plot."

More indeed. In it, banker Doug Fanning becomes entangled in a dispute with a retired schoolteacher over his ostentatious mansion, while also feeling himself drawn to Nate, her teenaged pupil. Released last week, reviews have already heralded it as worth the wait.

"The feedback has been positive," Haslett says modestly, noting that he "spent five years writing it and 18 months waiting for it to come out."

Funny how, in that time, his novel ended up being incredibly prescient.

Union Atlantic is set in the world of New York during 2002 — about the time Haslett began writing it, and it casts a withering eye on the shady financial systems and deals that would eventually lead to the Wall Street debacle.

"The strange thing for me was that I finished this book the same week that Lehman Brothers collapsed," he says from his home in New York City. "I knew the book would be read in light of what happened. It validated as much what I am writing about and the Fed and the shaky financial institutions."

That bit of serendipity had led one reviewer to declare Union Atlantic "a gay Bonfire of the Vanities." Haslett does see the point — both are sprawling Gotham-set novels that revolve around finance and capture the Zeitgeist of their ages. But he waffles at drawing too many comparisons.

"Where to start?" he sighs. "The Zeitgeist part I’m perfectly happy to cop to. I think a writer’s job is to tap into the world we live in and it shows I have been paying attention to what’s been going on. We’re living in a sea of falsity and I am writing about people who are, in some sense, drowning in it."

But the gay part? He’s more equivocal.

"The challenge in writing the character of Doug Fanning was to write about a character who sleeps with another male, but when the reader reads the book does not understand that person to be gay," he explains. "His relationships are of power and domination. I want the reader to sense it was more about power, more about an understanding of anger which is the emotion that lies behind American life."

Haslett wants his book to explore the clash of cultures, with "the militarism and hyper-capitalism" of modern society on one side and those who believe in humanities and letters on the other. But for him both can be extremists, absolutists.

"It’s not about good and evil, but taking people into the heads of the characters," he says. "I’m probably far more sympathetic toward Doug than most readers might be because he’s sort of ambition on speed. It doesn’t take that much imagination to think what we’d all be like if we gave ourselves over to it entirely."

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 19, 2010.

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