- The Garden of Last Days: A Novel
- W. W. Norton, 384 pp.
Sometime in the early stages of writing The Garden of Last Days, Andre Dubus III went to see his wife, who was folding laundry. He told her that he was off to Florida for a short research trip. Then he told her he’d be taking his brother and best friend from high school. And then he told her they’d be spending those three days and nights exclusively in strip clubs. His wife stopped folding the laundry.
Of course, the reason the affable Dubus was feeding strippers $20 from his writing fellowship becomes a little clearer when one reads the book – the tale of an exotic dancer in Florida whose life intersects with one of the hijackers of 9/11. And the reason I know about the laundry is because I heard Dubus tell the story.
Now, it is generally thought that reviewers should review a book in splendid isolation, just the words and padded walls for company. Yet, apart from those actually between padded walls, nobody reads this way.
In real life, Oprah and the way the pages smell and the dentist’s opinion and the gastrointestinal state of our tikka masala have already had their say before we even hit the first chapter. An opinion is the sum of many biases. Plus, having already read the book, and in the interests of entertainment, I decided a little authorial input wouldn’t go astray.
So come with me now to a New England library, in a room of resolutely good taste. Grey haired heads dip and nod. A picture window overlooks a twilit blue wash. At the front, the podium awaits the coming of the priest.
Suddenly, from the back bounds a good-looking guy, hair coiffed à la Elvis, manner shaped à la Carson, his book clutched in his hand. As he energetically thumps it open, we get the sense that this ain’t gonna be your average prayer meeting.
Is this really the same man who wrote The House of Sand and Fog, that famously bleak novel of clashing cultures? He looks far too happy.
But before we go mistaking the author for his work, let’s clarify that The Garden of Last Days is no romp in Eden either. Told from seven points of view, the narrative begins with April driving her young daughter Franny to work:
At this moment she hated this car and her ex-husband for buying it, she hated Jean and her weak heart, she hated Tina the house mom for being the one to watch over her Franny, she even hated Florida and its Gulf Coast that Stephanie up north had told her she’d love; but more than anything, she hated herself, April Marie Connors, for doing what she was about to do, for breaking the one rule she swore she’d never break, pulling out onto the macadam, then driving into the crushed-shell lot of the Puma Club for Men…
“And that’s how this little cheerful tale begins,” Dubus says, grinning.
It’s nice that he is upbeat, for it’s nothing but downhill for his characters from there. April meets Bassam, a young Saudi Arabian in the final stages of preparing for a flight on September 11, 2001. The money that he offers her for a private session is so large that she loses the chance to keep an eye on Franny, who is kidnapped, sort of, by a drunken father named AJ with a restraining order.
There’s a clever parallel of tensions here: the appalling national disaster we know is going to happen and the personal, intimate disaster we fear might be playing out in its place. Jean, Franny’s babysitter, is laid low by panic attacks, an appropriate metaphor for the mood Dubus creates. His characters seemed trapped in their dread, with disaster always just around the corner.
The Garden of Last Days is not a thriller, though. Dubus defines it as “character-driven fiction,” full of pasts revealed and the mind’s meanderings. Like the compression of layers of sedimentary rock, his style relies on the gradual accumulation of details. Run-on sentences and commas are his friends. Sharp poetic images are not. Thus we travel extensively through a Florida despoiled by modern man and development. We experience each character from multiple viewpoints. We learn how AJ likes to build houses. What Bassam’s childhood consisted of. What flowers Jean prefers. What a Slush Puppy looks like. This kind of sedimentation, naturally, takes time. Dubus spent five years writing his novel, five months of which he tells us were completely devoted to research on Arab culture.
You can see where he’s going with all of this effort. Starting with the idea of “slut”, we’re invited to rip off the labels – “wife-beater” “terrorist” – and get to the heart of his characters.
In some cases, he does a very good job. Though it took some time, he reminisces, to truly get into the habit of losing his genitalia (“that’s the worst fear men have, other than dying and being audited”), his April is irritatingly human. AJ’s decisions, though erratic, have their own kind of drunken logic. Lonnie, the bouncer, gives a striking self-analysis of his violent nature.
With others, like Jean and Bassam, he struggles somewhat. His previous Middle Eastern character, Massoud Amir Behrani, the former Iranian colonel, was based on the father of a college girlfriend. Bassam, on the other hand, is a composite, based on research. Without a personal frame of reference, his contradictory impulses come across as a little hammy:
She may look up at Bassam and smile again, so warmly as before, and he would strike, the blade pulled from the boy’s neck before he even feels the hand upon his forehead. The blood that must come. Her screams. Her eyes the eyes of one who can now see. Her ears that can now hear.
Feeling nauseous? Unavoidable, considering the subject matter, but there is something else playing out here. Bassam’s dual sense of seduction and repulsion towards the United States seems to seep into the rest of the book. On the one hand, Dubus wants to de-mystify and de-objectify April’s life. On the other, he cannot help but get caught up in the sensuous aspects of sex and violence.
This is not necessarily a criticism, though it might leave a sour aftertaste, for that is what life is. Bassam dreams of virgins as rewards and goes to strip clubs for his desires. Florida, land of the flowers, paradise of sunshine, is a tainted garden.
Yet there is one garden that remains “pure”, and that’s Jean’s garden, where April (professional name Spring) can retreat to drink her coffee, where Franny is safe, where people are loved. Back in the hush of the library, Dubus tells us that an image of a “big wad of cash on a bedroom bureau” was the inspiration for his book, but that’s not the one he mentions first.
He talks about his mother sitting at a kitchen counter, sometime in the late 50s or early 60s, sipping coffee. She’s young, a former beauty queen, and he’s only two years old.
For all that Dubus says he’s not the kind of author who can write derivatively about his own life – “I find myself being more fueled by a story to find” – this image seems suspiciously close to home. And when he mentions that his father was a heavy drinker, hack psychology can’t help but raise its head. Innocence – that’s what is threatened by Bassam and by AJ, and that’s what the women try to protect.
In the end, innocence may be destroyed but all of his characters are not, though that wasn’t a consideration when he wrote it: “I try not to ever think about the readers, or anticipate whether a book is publishable.” Bassam goes on to commit his horrific crime, but April survives. If you like his style, that weight of layered rock, then you will like The Garden of Last Days.
Perhaps, though, some consideration for the readers might not go amiss in his next effort, especially if he writes another modern tragedy. He’s obviously funny – why not put it to use? A little bit of comedy, a few air pockets in the soil, the old entertainer Shakespeare knew, has the ability to throw your tragedy into high relief. Even in sunny Florida.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.