I associate Andre Dubus with The House of Sand and Fog and Jennifer Connelly’s cool, elegant beauty. I had little interest in reading the book the film was based on likely because it kept getting confused in my mind with this awful, incoherent film I watched in film class in college. Damn. I’m pretty sure that horrid movie had “sand” in the title but I have inconveniently blocked it out of my mind. Oh well.
Anyway, therefore, Andre Dubus was not an author on my radar until I kept coming across glowing reviews of his latest book in the oh-so-highbrow periodicals to which I subscribe: Time and Entertainment to be exact. So, intrigued, I requested it from my local library branch and was impressed.
The Garden of Last Days is not a pretty book, but that is because it is about life and life as we all know is seldom pretty. It’s about a stripper, “Spring”, who strips at a club in Florida in order to support her young daughter. Primarily set in early September 2001, it focuses on one night in particular when Spring is forced to take her daughter with her to the club due to childcare problems. That night she also encounters a client who is Muslim and who monopolizes her time in one of the private rooms. That same night another man is thrown out of the club because of his misinterpretation of what his relationship is with one of the strippers. And Spring’s daughter, left to watch Disney movies in the club, disappears.
Dubus is a fantastic, amazing writer. Each character is fully alive and he probes their lives for the tiniest detail, the most inane raison d’etre. The story is advanced through various characters’ points of view, and the way in which he digs deeply into their pysches and motivations is stunning. Dubus makes no judgments about his characters’ lives. In his storytelling, the characters speak for themselves. No one is wholly good or wholly bad. Even the Musliam customer, clearly one of the 9/11 terrorists, has redeeming moments. All of these lives intersect for a few hours in Florida before moving on, their lives changed by the contact.
While most of the action takes place over the course of a few hours, the book does make it 9/11 and beyond. Once the action left Florida, I felt like the book began to drag a little bit. You knew the inevetible outcome of the trip to Boston and you wished Dubus would get on with it. Once the terrorists made it to Boston, I began to have less and less sympathy for them. That’s my only quibble with the book. Life goes on, and it does for the characters. That one night impacts them all, but the aftermath is the most tedious part of the book. I wish that Dubus had brought things to a close earlier.