The Garden of Last Days
By Andre Dubus III
W.W. Norton & Company, 537 pp.
"The job description for the author," Andre Dubus III once told an interviewer, "is to imagine the lives of others." Writing, he said, is "a sustained act of empathy." Like his last novel, 1999's House of Sand and Fog, his latest, The Garden of Last Days, demonstrates with haunting clarity that Dubus is supremely qualified for the position.
Set in the seedier corners of Gulf Coast Florida in the days leading up to Sept. 11, The Garden of Last Days is inspired in part by real life: specifically, by news reports that some of the Sept. 11 hijackers visited strip clubs in Daytona before making their way north. The novel takes an unflinching look into the interwoven lives of five characters imprisoned by their own choices and struggling to free themselves. April Connors is a young single mother who works as a stripper at the Puma Club for Men, hoping that one day she will earn enough money to invest in real estate and provide a solid home for her 3-year-old daughter, Franny. Jean Hanson, April's landlord and regular babysitter, is an aging widow plagued by suffocating loneliness and constant anxiety. When Jean succumbs to a particularly acute panic attack that leaves her hospitalized, April has no choice but to take Franny to work with her and leave her backstage in the care of the Puma Club's negligent house-mother.
Out on the floor of the club, one of its regular patrons, AJ Carey, is aggressively tossed out for holding hands with one of the dancers. He drives into the night with a broken wrist, fuming over how women have disappointed and betrayed him. Lonnie, too smart to be a bouncer at the Puma but limited by his dyslexia, remains inside, surveying the floor for "pockets" of trouble. Because of Lonnie's unspoken affection for April (he knows her only as "Spring," her stage name), he becomes jumpy when a condescending foreigner—a young Saudi named Bassam al-Jizani—hires her to dance for him in the club's Champagne Room.
Dubus divides The Garden of Last Days among these disparate characters' perspectives, inhabiting each voice with astonishing sensitivity. These are people who use the promise of the future as a weak anesthetic for the pain of the present: AJ fantasizes about all the ways he can make life better for his young son, Cole; Bassam channels his grief over his dead brother into rigid righteousness and dreams of the afterlife; April soothes her guilt about stripping by planning for better days. "How easy it is," Dubus writes of April, "... to simply leave it behind by looking ahead: to a hot shower or bath, to kissing her fingers and touching them to her sleeping daughter's forehead, to curling up in the clean sheets of her childhood knowing this is just till she's set."
What sets Dubus apart as a storyteller is his unfailing sense of fairness to his characters. Even the ones who initially appear unsympathetic are rendered with kindness and prismatic understanding. AJ, for example, is legally barred from seeing his wife after backhanding her in their kitchen, but when Dubus describes the real reason for AJ's frustration and rage—his self-loathing over his own failures—the reader can't help but share his sorrow. AJ is troubled, yes, but he's also fiercely protective of his son, the only person AJ has ever really loved:
"It almost hurt to feel this much love. He'd never felt anything close to it before, and it scared him; lying there with baby Cole, he'd wanted to cover him with his whole body. Build a steel and concrete house around him. Erect a twelve-foot hurricane fence around that. Drive him places in a tank, and never let anybody bad close enough to see him or call his name or even know it."
Likewise, Bassam, the hijacker-in-training, isn't merely cold and calculating; he is desperate to escape his dead-end life as a stock boy in Khamis Mushayt, a Saudi military town, where he was reminded daily of the West's ubiquitous cultural influence. Islamic fundamentalism gives him a purpose and a confidence that he's never known. His resolve "is not unlike gazing into a fire, how everything falls away, how you stop thinking of all that has been done and must be done and should have been done differently by everyone, especially yourself." Even so, he struggles against the carnal temptations of Western life and his burgeoning sympathy for the Americans he meets.
Because of the rage, fear and grief that go along with the subject, assuming the voice of a Sept. 11 hijacker would be a big gamble for any novelist. It's a move that can only be convincing if the writer presents the character in all his dimensions without either romanticizing or vilifying him, which, remarkably, Dubus manages to do. Bassam is at once smug and afraid, arrogant and utterly lost.
One gets the sense early on, as in a Greek tragedy, that some kind of disaster, either psychological or actual, is on the horizon. The aggregate force of the characters' simmering resentment is too strong for the center to hold. The premise of the novel inclines one to think that the story of Bassam will provide most of the book's narrative traction, but his path to self-destruction is no more devastating than those of the others. The real crisis in The Garden of Last Days is a moment of emotional—not political—terror, when April's daughter, Franny, disappears from the Puma Club.
Dubus' visceral prose immerses the reader in a world that many other writers would have overlooked or backed away from. Rather than varnishing his characters, he honors them the best way a writer can: by making them conflicted and complex. The result is a profoundly intimate, intricately detailed novel about people who shutter themselves from the dispiriting realities of their lives and are forced, in the end, to confront them. The author's steady compassion runs deeply throughout the story, essential to it, like the smell of the Gulf in the damp Florida night.
Andre Dubus III makes two local appearances Friday, June 13: at McIntyre's Fine Books in Fearrington Village at 2 p.m., and at Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh at 7 p.m.