The Garden of Last Days
The Garden of Last Days
By Andre Dubus III
This is the latest novel by Andre Dubus III and first since 1999’s National Book Award Finalist House of Sand and Fog. That book was a novel of the American Dream gone terribly wrong and depicted a tragic modern interpretation of the American immigrant experience. The movie version was released in 2002 to critical acclaim as well.
The Garden of Last Days is a complex look at the days that lead up to the tragedy of September 11, 2001. It is set in Florida and its main characters include one of the 9/11 suicide bombers, an exotic dancer, her young daughter and landlord/babysitter, a down-on-his-luck construction worker who has anger management issues and is recently separated from his wife and a myriad of supporting minor characters. The overall plot is complex, intertwining and compelling. A lot of the action takes place within the Puma Club for Men and the entire 517 page story takes place over about a 48 hour period. The story is told from multiple points of view with alternating chapters being narrated by each of the main characters as well as some of the minor ones. The central plot turn occurs early in the book. April (the exotic dancer) is trapped into taking her three year old daughter to the Puma Club because of her babysitter’s sudden illness. During her shift she captivates Bassam (the terrorist) and makes the choice of spending time individually with him in the “Champagne Room” (for big bucks) rather than keep a close eye on her child. The child wanders off and disappears. The author attempts to define motivations by revealing each character’s thinking as events occur within the mainframe of the larger story.
The novel is in part an examination of the motivation of the suicide bombers. The author spent months in research and interviews in an attempt to understand and present this in a manner not clouded by anger or pre-conceived prejudices. Whether he completely succeeds in this is debatable. Another major theme is a continuation from House of Sand and Fog. That is, Dubus dives deeply into the lives of the marginal citizens in our country. The exotic dancer character is a contradiction: she sees her occupation as the only way to achieve economic prosperity for her fatherless child and lives a very respectable life outside of the Puma Club. The construction worker is trapped in a marriage by an unplanned pregnancy and forced to work for his father-in-law’s business rather than pursue higher education. In yet another contradiction, his resentment and anger builds, his behavior becomes more despicable but he remains a very sympathetic character. The terrorist stops into the Puma Club before meeting with his co-conspirators and finds himself torn between his religious beliefs and his human failings and minimal resistance to temptation.
I think this book is mostly about perceptions, prejudices and misconceptions. It is about the disconnect between an individuals self-perception and judgments made by outside observers. April, for instance sees herself as a businesswoman who is using the one talent she feels that she has to save money for a better future for her child. The police, social workers and casual observers see an irresponsible mother with no morals. The construction worker sees himself as a victim of fate, forced to forego his dream of a better life by a chance encounter. Others see him as a dead-beat father and spouse abuser who drinks too much and is, basically, worthless. Finally, and most importantly for the purpose of the novel, is Basram the terrorist. He sees himself fulfilling a destiny and a religious dictum; he sees the Western culture as corrupt and self-gratifying and his own culture as pure and principled. Others see his as a fanatic who is manipulated and used to support a political goal.
The Garden of Last Days is a complex, multi-layered story with themes and subthemes which could be discussed for days. The multiple narrators, first person style is a bit confusing at times, but, overall it works to better define motivations and rationalizations for the characters’ actions. Reading this book makes you learn more about the functions of a “gentleman’s club” than you ever thought you needed to know. The Puma Club does, however, set the stage for the many moral dilemmas faced by the story’s many characters.
The resolution of the sub-plots is all covered in the final few short chapters. The actual events of September 11 are never described, but then, we are all too painfully familiar with them anyway. I think the author short-changed us a bit by basically summarizing what happened over the ensuing years to each of the characters. This may be the result of some severe editing which reduced this book from its first version of close to 900 pages.
In the genre of “9/11 Fiction”, most books which I have read (Don DeLillo’s “Falling Man”, S. J. Rozan’s “Absent Friends”, etc...) have all more or less focused on America’s reaction to the terrorist attacks. This is the first novel I have read which attempts to explain the motivations of the attackers. In that respect this is an important addition to the genre and well worth reading.
The Garden of Last Days by Alexander Dubus III is available in hardcover from Norton publishers.