Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Garden Of Last Days

Just the other day I finished reading one of the best novels I have read in a long long time.
The Garden of Last Days, by Andre Dubus III. [2008].
It is such a sprawling, yet condensed work.
Even the ISBN people do not know how to categorize it. They list it as combining eight topics: 1) Stripteasers, 2) Mothers and daughters, 3) Older women, 4) Life change events, 5) Sex-oriented businesses, 6) Saudi Arabians – United States, 7) Florida, 8) Psychological fiction.
I am a very slow reader, and so it was noticeable to me how quickly I devoured this fairly lengthy book [535 pages]… noticeable how every time I set it down, I did not want to do so.
The book is sprawling because it analyzes in detail four or five separate, yet simultaneous streams of action. It is condensed because the entire bulk of the story takes place in the six days days leading up to and including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in 2001. Dubus throws together a remarkable, yet highly believable amalgam of characters, in this week of heart-piercing hell.

April Connors, a knockout stripper [her stage-name is Spring] is forced one evening to bring her 3 ½-year old daughter Franny to the Puma Club because Jean, her landlady and ever-present babysitter, has been admitted to the hospital. At the Club, April entrusts her daughter to the care of Tina, who is [to say the least] extremely negligent. Even I could have done a better job of babysitting!
Meanwhile, April is getting [how does one say this]…. umm… more business than usual out on the floor. After one of her normal routines on stage, she is invited to the Champagne Room, and is detained there for a long while, as a foreigner named Bassam continues to hand her a seemingly endless stream of hundred-dollar bills in return for simply talking with him. Or rather, answering his increasingly spooky questions!
Unbeknownst to April, Bassam is enjoying the third last evening of his life, as he is one of the terrorists who will soon carry out the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Dubus based his story on the well-known fact that the Florida-based contingent of 9/11 hijackers spent their last days this side of death indulging in the evil-pleasures of strip-club visitation. For the fictional character of Bassam, the temptation to re-view these Western evils was too great, and he returned to the Puma Club for a private audience with the alluring April.
Simultaneously, one of the club regulars, A.J. Carey, a man on the down-swing of severely bad times [his wife has placed a restraining order on him] gets thrown out of the club by Lonnie the Bouncer for touching one of the dancers, Marianne. A.J. sustains a broken wrist in the process and when he returns later that night, he parks out back and waits for his Marianne to leave so that he can have a word with her, and explain his actions.
What will happen when A.J. sees little Franny crying at the screen door at the back of the club?
To the drunken A.J., she seems to be a helpless, abandoned child, and forgetting about Marianne for the time being, he decides to….. well, really, this is all I will say. You must read the book.

Every time Dubus switched to focus on a different character, I found myself completely engrossed in what was happening with that separate thread. And I marvelled at how all was being tied together… it’s just a terrific read! To use an overused cliché… this thing is a real page-turner.
Full of so many “What If’s”…. as in:
What if Tina was just a little less negligent of Franny?
What if A.J. had not squeezed Marianne’s hand?
What if Bassam did not find the strip-club so alluring? What if he had not taken April into the Champagne Room?
What if Jean could have been at home, as usual, that fateful night?
What if Lonnie the Bouncer had just checked on Franny, as April had asked him to?

Among other things, I found this novel to be a real illuminating look into the absolute insanity of religious extremism. I agree with one reviewer, who said: "Dubus knows that you may not make sense out of the incomprehensible, but you can make art."
This book is definitely a work of art.

Buy it HERE.
Check out this great INTERVIEW with the author.
Click HERE for a way better review than mine!


Anonymous said...

I just finished reading this book and I compliment you on your ability to put this review (which I think is right on) together. The plot is complex - because of the many divergencies in it - and yet Dubus makes it easy to keep all of them at least moderately interesting.

I think there is something to explore - to note - in authors who increasingly clad real life characters in fictional robes. I realize this has always been done, but it seems ever more to be a blurred area.
I see that you mention Banks' doing this with the artist Rockwell Kent...and then here - the highly emotion-charged references that Dubus makes to the hijackers who we know as a matter of record visited strip joints prior to the "mission."

I would love to see your readers' comments on what seems to be to be an ever growing trend toward fictionalized history - especially current or contemporary "history."

I am especially interested in what they - and you, of course - view as its purposes and limits as a genre.

It seems to run alongside what I understand to be called creative non-fiction...a term that might well be regarded as oxymoronic. [?]

A very fine review here, Cipriano, as usual.
People who have not yet read the book cannot imagine the difficulty of pinning it down as well as you have here.
I enjoyed having your review to read both before and after my own reading.
Thank you.

As always,
A Fan

cipriano said...

Thank you for your gracious comment, Anonymous.
As you mention, if this thing about "creative non-fiction" is, in fact, a genre... I recall a couple of books I thoroughly enjoyed, that can be categorized as such.
Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow.
Oh wait.... also, [and perhaps even moreso than either of the above], The Master, by Colm Toibin.

It's a type of read that I particularly enjoy!