22 June 2008
The Garden of Last Days
Andre Dubus III
Dallas Morning News
22 June 2008
The Garden of Last Days is actually, accidentally, two separate novels linked through a potboiler plot about a child abduction in Florida during the weekend before 9/11, starring April, an ambitious stripper; AJ, a down and out CAT operator; and Bassam, an anxious Muslim terrorist.
In one novel, April, due to her baby sitter's illness, must bring to work her daughter, Franny. Hoping that the child will sleep, April puts Franny in an anteroom of the Puma Club during her shift.
Meanwhile, AJ, estranged from his wife and child, has come to the club seeking the solace of sexual illusion. Thrown out early in the evening for touching a dancer aggressively, AJ returns to the Puma in a drunken, angry stupor to seek retribution. Instead he finds Franny wandering the parking lot alone.
Author Andre Dubus III, a National Book Award finalist for House of Sand and Fog, intersperses what ensues with April and Bassam's strange "champagne room" interaction, in which they spend the beginning third of Garden talking about identity and morality.
In the linked novel, Mr. Dubus, pulling from real events – some 9/11 hijackers did visit Florida strip clubs before their attacks – has assembled the elements for a stunning novel about terrorism. Had the author focused specifically on Bassam, he could have developed a forceful work. But the potential power of the narrative about this Florida terrorist cell has been cut by Mr. Dubus' inability to draw Bassam's psychological battle (martyrdom versus the living world) with significant depth.
Creating a full, believable picture of the terrorists' motivations is not Mr. Dubus' problem alone; all American literary novelists who've attempted to illuminate the roots of fundamentalist vengeance have tended toward narrow stereotypes rather than examining the complexities of character psychology.
Mr. Dubus, who studied sociology at the University of Texas, repeats the canard that given access to female sexuality, especially that of American or European women, the terrorists might not have wanted to steal airplanes or blow up buildings. But Mr. Dubus never clarifies what triggers Bassam's zealotry. Islamic martyrdom is worth understanding. Continuing to claim that access to sex weakens the terrorist's resolve depoliticizes Bassam's anger, making his problems those of a "lonely boy."
Unlike most 9/11 novels, Garden is, laudably, not about upper-middle-class characters. Inspired by "dirty realism" and writers such as Raymond Carver and Larry Brown (to whom the book is dedicated), Mr. Dubus' chapters are brief, sometimes two or three pages long, keeping the story's movement brisk. He forgoes linguistic flair, hewing close to the skeletal elements of storytelling. However, it is a big-boned frame: The work comes in at 533 pages.
Mr. Dubus' swift clip also means rapid shifts among the characters' perspectives. Just as the reader is developing a relationship with a key character, another arrives three pages later.
Rather than feeling the intricate weave of consciousnesses the author hopes to portray, Garden's structure directs readers' attentions toward the missing connections among April, AJ and Bassam. In the end, readers will be left feeling as if they've sat with someone switching randomly among three separate television channels.