By Andre Dubus III
Norton, 537 pp., $24.95
Novelists keep being drawn to the events of September 11, 2001, hoping to confine the heinous imponderables of that day into the shapings of fiction. Writers as various as Jay McInerney (The Good Life), Jonathan Safran Foer (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and John Updike (Terrorist) have made their attempts at it.
It’s hardly surprising that Andre Dubus III should join them with his new novel, The Garden of Last Days. Even before 9/11, in his 1999 novel House of Sand and Fog, he gave us a story that reverberated with the larger conflicts between America and the Middle East. It was a deftly constructed novel about the conflict between a somewhat feckless single woman and an exiled Iranian colonel. Oprah selected it for her book club and made it a bestseller.
Nine years later, Dubus has written another novel about a single woman, April Connors, who works as a stripper at the Puma Club for Men in Sarasota, Fla. She has a three-year-old daughter, Franny, whom she usually leaves with her landlady, Jean, while she works. When Jean gets ill, April is forced to take Franny to the club and let her watch Disney videos in the manager’s office before she falls asleep. But while April is entertaining a customer in one of the club’s private rooms, Franny wakes up and goes in search of her mother.
Franny is discovered at the back door of the club by AJ Carey, a construction worker who was kicked out earlier for getting too familiar with one of the strippers. His wrist was broken in the fracas and now, full of booze and painkillers, he has come back for revenge. What happens next is not good, and it messes up several people’s already messed-up lives.
So how does 9/11 come into all this? When Dubus read news reports that some of the hijackers had visited strip clubs and hired prostitutes in the days and weeks before their final flight, he thought about writing a short story about the encounter of a terrorist and a stripper.
It might have made a potent short story, but instead this encounter is wedged into a 500-page novel where it bears only a thematic relationship to the central plot. The Garden of Last Days takes place in early September 2001, and the customer April is entertaining in the Champagne Room of the Puma Club is a young Saudi named Bassam who, a few days later, will be one of the hijackers. (Dubus has fictionalized the terrorists’ names.) In a few lines of dialogue between Bassam and April, Dubus economically sums up one of the novel’s central themes:
“ ‘I should not like you, April.’
“ ‘Why shouldn’t you?’
“He lit another cigarette, inhaled deeply. ‘Because then I would be like you. And I am not like you.’ ”
Bassam, the terrorist, can’t fulfill his mission if he drops his habit of objectifying the enemy, if he treats non-believers like April as human beings and not as targets. The operative irony here is that April herself works in a milieu in which women are objectified -- treated as sex objects and not as human beings. But the problem is that Bassam has only a thematic role in the novel. He doesn’t fit into the plot; he affects neither its origins nor its outcome. And he doesn’t fit stylistically.
Dubus tells his story in discrete segments, each narrated from a point of view limited to one of the characters: April, Bassam, AJ, Jean and a bouncer at the club named Lonnie. He has richly imagined the way each of his American characters lives and thinks. But his imagination lets him down in the portrayal of Bassam.
Dubus roots Bassam’s fanaticism in some pretty thin psychology: a mixture of Oedipus complex (his last act before leaving to board the plane is to mail a letter to his mother) and sibling rivalry with his Westernized older brother Khalid, who died when he crashed his American car. Dubus lards Bassam’s narrative with Arabic words and quotes from the Qur’an, and he resorts to stiff, archaic syntax to emphasize Bassam’s foreignness: “So often he has asked himself why do these kufar have so much power?”
The result is that Bassam’s sections of the novel feel stagy and mechanical, whereas the emotional responses and moral dilemmas faced by April, AJ and Jean are real and touching. We learn of April’s ability to separate herself as Franny’s mother from the persona she adopts when she works in the club, and of her guilt and rage when Franny’s disappearance breaks down her tendency to compartmentalize. We enter into AJ’s confusion and desperation after he makes the impulsive decision to drive away from the club with Franny in his truck. And we experience Jean’s loneliness, her possessiveness toward Franny, the child she never had, and her distaste for April’s way of life.
Dubus’ novel makes a solid impact with its searching examination of its characters’ blind self-centeredness. But it would have that impact even if Bassam’s story had never been inserted into it. For his final act on Sept. 11 has no direct effect on the lives of the other characters. In fact, where the novel is concerned, only one of the characters, the bouncer Lonnie, is even indirectly affected by what happened on 9/11. The Garden of Last Days would have been a stronger, more coherent novel if Bassam had been omitted from it.