The Garden of Last Days (Norton, 384 pages, $24.95) sets itself up to be pulp, but give it time. Author Andre Dubus III, who also wrote House of Sand and Fog, has achieved some Houdini-caliber misdirection, and his third act may bring you tumbling to the ground.
At first glance, the book tells the story of April, a noble stripper (yawn) forced by the vicissitudes of a luckless life to bring her 3-year-old daughter to work one night. Predictably, little Franny is kidnapped from the back office at the strip club, where she is supposed to be watching Disney movies.
Who took her? Was it A.J., a drunk and disorderly patron? Lonnie, the libidinous bouncer? Jean, April's lonely widowed landlord? Or was it Bassam, that strange Middle Eastern guy with all the cash? You can almost hear previews rolling: Starring Academy Award-winners Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd, a heartbreaking story about loss and the strength of the human spirit….
But keep your eye on Bassam, because he is none other than—get ready for this—a fictionalized version of one of the Saudi hijackers of American Airlines Flight 11—the plane that left Logan Airport in Boston and crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. That's right. This isn't a book about a stripper and her daughter. Or at least, not entirely. Even as the story of April and Franny unfolds, The Garden of Last Days transforms itself into an intimate look inside the mind of a jihadist.
Structurally, nesting the events of 9/11 inside a kitschy tale about a kidnapped toddler is like trying to fit a watermelon through the hole in a pitted olive. On one hand, it's absurd, even a little funny.
On the other hand, Dubus' structure brilliantly mimics the Sept. 11 experience of most Americans. When the towers fell, we weren't doing anything heroic—rather, we were sleeping, shopping online for swimsuits, playing soccer or trying for the third time to pass our driver's test. Those planes appeared out of a blue sky, an unexpected watermelon in the everyday olive of American life. Dubus' ability to re-create that shock is literary magicianship at its finest.
What's more, beginning the story of an extremist with his visit to a strip club emphasizes Bassam's humanity—although he attempts to live by the strictures of radical Islam, he is involuntarily drawn to the (admittedly somewhat dubious) enticements of the West—cigarettes, alcohol, freedom of expression, fast cars, naked dancers.
That said, the depiction of Bassam doesn't succeed entirely. Dubus has an unfortunate tendency to be reductive and even a little condescending about the thought processes of his characters, and it serves him worst with a sensitive subject like this one.
Whether terrorists make inherently unsympathetic characters is a difficult question, but I'm inclined to think that they don't. Remember, the Flight 11 hijackers were just poor, impressionable Saudi kids, seduced by the certainty of a fundamentalist religion in an otherwise totally uncertain world. What they did was heinous and unforgivable. Still, there is a sympathetic dimension there, one that Dubus' portrait—for whatever reason—fails adequately to capture.
In spite of imperfections, you've gotta admire Dubus' ambition, the magnitude of the project. Especially after the gloom of Sand and Fog, this is a promising step in a new direction.
Andre Dubus III reads at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, 228-4651. 7 pm Wednesday, June 25. Free.