The Garden of Last Days: A Novel
by Andre Dubus III
Reviewed by Art Winslow
We know from The 9/11 Commission Report that 12 of the "muscle" hijackers that day (the non-pilots) came from Saudi Arabia and were 20 to 28 years old; most were unemployed, had little more than a high-school education and were unmarried. Five of the Saudis came from Asir province, in the south of the country bordering Yemen. Perhaps curiously to us, generally their ties to extremism had developed only in the two or three years preceding the attacks, and, "Their families often did not consider these young men religious zealots," the commission reported, based on briefings by Saudi authorities.
We also know that at least seven of those young men had been trained in a camp near Kandahar, Afghanistan; that Osama bin Laden had personally chosen them; that they had copious funds in cash and traveler's checks; and that many of them assembled in Florida (Mohamed Atta, an Egyptian considered the lead hijacker and one of the pilots, took flight instruction in Venice, Fla., and then Sarasota, 20 miles north).
It was only a matter of time before an American novelist would decide that these people, insular as they tried to be, must have led local lives, and begin to speculate about the nature of those lives. And so we have Andre Dubus III's forthcoming novel The Garden of Last Days, set in Sarasota and its surrounds, in which a 26-year-old Saudi from Asir province, loaded with cash, marks time before his mission, loosely monitored by "the Egyptian" while meditating on his hatred of the West and his jihadi aspirations to martyrdom, gloating over how easy it would be to kill any of the kufar (unbelievers) around him, given his training, and yet in guilt he also succumbs to many of the haram (forbidden) practices so endemic to American life: imbibing alcohol, smoking, even visiting a joint with exotic dancers, the Puma Club for Men, whose 30-foot-high neon sign was always on and sported silhouettes of two naked women. Ah, the Sunshine State, a garden of last days in many senses. Florida is chock-full of retirees, for one thing, which doesn't escape the notice of AJ Carey, a young backhoe operator and occasional wife-beater who charges around in his F-150 truck and is another patron of the Puma Club:
Like God picked up the country and shook it and all those who weren't nailed down with jobs and commitments slipped right out of their houses, their card games and visits with grandkids, their nine holes of golf and double dates with older people who'd lived long enough to make it to dinner one more Saturday night -- every year more and more of them just slipped out of their lives and fell to Florida.
The Puma Club, with its strippers, bouncers and polyglot customer base, is the principal portal through which Dubus will draw us into this gritty novel -- a flesh garden, of sorts. In it, soon-to-be hijacker Bassam al-Jizani will cross paths intimately with one of the club's leading dancers, known by her stage name, Spring, a woman whose life is to be touched very differently by AJ's as well, to terrible effect for both.
Spring's daytime name is April Connors, and she lives with her 3-year-old daughter, Franny, in an upstairs rental at the home of widower Jean Hanson, who counts herself among that aging cohort that has made its way to Florida. Jean's house has a garden, where she tries to relax in what seem to be tenuous days -- end times -- since her panic attacks mimic the symptoms of mortal threats like heart attacks, and none of her relatives survived to be much older than she already is. Jean is Franny's babysitter, and April and Franny frequent her garden as well, "The best part of living here," thinks April, amid the frangipani, bougainvillea, yellow hibiscus, pink allamanda and a mango tree.
Such Edenic imagery, in a clever parallel by Dubus, is in the mind of the hijacker, too, whose martyrdom will land him in paradise, Jannah, which is pictured in Islam as a lush garden (the word itself signifies garden). But life's flowering is far more ephemeral than eternal, a fact painfully evident to Dubus' characters. Jean, who still pines for her late husband and whose marriage was childless, develops loving but near-proprietary feelings for Franny that bring her to the verge of tears. "In her lonelier, weaker moments she saw the terrible unfairness of this: she had so little time left and she was finding this feeling only now?"
A similar haunting sense of pending doom -- represented directly by Bassam and his fellow plotters Imad, Tariq and the Egyptian -- pervades the novel in ways large and small. From the black plywood environs of the Puma Club to the cinderblock house AJ was ejected from by a restraining order, leaving behind his wife and young son, Dubus sketches settings and lives attended by dissipation and disappointment. It is hardly novelistic accident that, struggle as they may, virtually all his people find they have been hijacked from their intended path by events that create damage direct and collateral.
Characters who find themselves in straited circumstances, with an international political twist in the background, have marked Dubus' work before, notably his novel House of Sand and Fog. That fiction, a National Book Award finalist and a selection of Oprah Winfrey's book club, featured a former military officer for the shah of Iran as one of its narrators. Dubus used his foreign character's voice to comment on American life from an external perspective, just as he utilizes Bassam's cultural antipathy to the consumerist West as part of the dialectic in The Garden of Last Days.
Where House of Sand and Fog used alternating first-person narration, here Dubus is quasi-polyphonic in third person by sinking the reader partially into the thought process of various characters. For the most part that works effectively, although it will be difficult for a reader to discern whether the alien affectations of some of the sections involving Bassam are due to the cultural gap involved or the author's difficulty in imbuing that character with the same strong verisimilitude that marks his American creations.
Dubus has fleshed out Bassam as someone who actually likes many of the Americans he encounters and struggles with his own sense of weakness -- humanized him, in other words, which, given the historical context, is an act of novelistic bravado. (At home, Bassam's older and university-educated brother, Khalid, loved to speed in his Grand Am, listening to cassettes of David Lee Roth; he was killed in a rollover, which Bassam is convinced was payback by Allah for Khalid's Western ways.)
In fictionalizing, incidentally, while Dubus has changed the hijackers' names and many particulars, he has also embedded historical facts in his matrix. Bassam's hometown of Khamis Mushayt was the actual hometown of two of the 9/11 terrorists, whose father had built a mosque for the town, as does the fictional Bassam's father. Furthermore, the wordings of brief italicized interpolations late in the novel, in sections showing the terrorists preparing for their mission and being transported to Logan International Airport in Boston, are not confections of Dubus' imagination but were taken piecemeal largely from a four-page document found in luggage of Mohamed Atta's that did not make it onto the 9/11 flight: "You should feel complete tranquility, because the time between you and your marriage in heaven is very short"; "When the hour of reality approaches, the zero hour, wholeheartedly welcome death for the sake of Allah."
Since almost all of The Garden of Last Days takes place before the events of 9/11, which are treated only in the closing pages of the novel and even then elliptically, it is the unmentioned elephant in the room as Dubus' characters go about their daily routines. In those, Dubus seems to be proposing that various levels of terror attend daily life to begin with -- at least in the seamy setting he has chosen, which is revelatory in a way much American fiction is not.
As the novel opens, Jean has been hospitalized after fears she is suffering a heart attack, which left her thinking "it was terrible to die this way. To suffocate alone in the late-morning brightness." Her absence forces April, with no backup baby-sitter, to take Franny to the Puma Club for the evening. Like layers of clothing, the assumptions of safety and basic goodness in life are peeled away as the novel proceeds, with Franny even ending up -- explicably and inexplicably -- in the truck of drink-as-you drive AJ. He is in the midst of his own fervid peregrinations, mooning over one of the Puma's dancers and obsessing on his forced separation from his wife and son: "Deena had changed the locks on him but he could still get in. Didn't she know that? Did they all think he was stupid?"
Self-delusion is in the warm gulf water here, apparently, for Dubus anoints nearly every character with it, whether AJ or Bassam or even April, who, despite her trade, when she thinks of the other dancers, is convinced that "she wasn't really one of them." Dubus' writing and his individual scenes -- Bassam questioning April in a private room at the Puma Club, for instance -- are more affecting than the overall plot as it whorls ever tighter like a descending funnel cloud. " 'You are in love with living, and you have no God,' " Bassam lectured April. Yet when the Egyptian wasn't looking, Bassam and his colleagues took operations money and rented mopeds to cruise the beach, with its breeze and oiled masses. Asked by Jean what the hijacker was like, April replied: " 'Like a boy. Just some drunk and lonely boy.' " That may be Dubus' most terrifying thought.
Art Winslow, a former literary editor and executive editor of the Nation magazine, writes frequently about books and culture.