"The Garden of the Last Days"
(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 21, 2008)
“She had a fine body she knew how to make you hungry for, showing you just enough in her stage act you’d pay to get her alone in the VIP, which he’d done early on. She’d sat him down and danced and stripped for him, hardly ever looking away from his eyes, though it’d been like staring at somebody on the TV and getting nothing back…This Spring, she was a pro. Moving between the tables with her chin up like he and all the rest were beneath her.”
Set on the west coast of Florida from Thursday, September 6, through Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the ironically entitled The Garden of Last Days focuses on the sleazy netherworld of the Puma Club for Men, a strip joint on the outskirts of Sarasota. Five characters share their stories during the 5-nights and days leading up to the catastrophe at the World Trade Center, and as their lives intersect and overlap with each other, they create a broad panorama of life’s darkest side with all its personal challenges. As author Andre DuBus III individualizes the strippers, bouncers, managers, and sometimes desperate patrons of the Puma, they become a microcosm of hopes and dreams, mistakes and failures, and, in some rare cases, triumphs against insuperable odds.
April Marie Connors, the mother of three-year-old Franny, strips at the Puma in order to save money so she can buy a house for herself and her daughter. Franny is the light of this single mother’s life, and April is desperate to get out of the “business” soon. Refusing to resort to prostitution and determined to keep her head high in her work as Spring, an exotic dancer, April does her job but stays apart from the rowdy milieu. Her elderly landlady, Jean, a widow with heart trouble, who babysits for Franny, adores the child and treats her like her own, but when she feels crushing chest pain one day, she checks herself into the hospital. April, with no childcare alternative open to her, has to take Franny to the Puma Club that Thursday or miss a lucrative night’s work. Gathering up some of Franny’s favorite videos and toys, April hires Tina, the “house mom” for the Puma women, to watch over her at the club and make sure she is safe and happy, away from the nastiness and away from April’s own act.
Lonnie, a bouncer, admires April/Spring, and he rigidly enforces the “hands-off” policy of the Puma women, sadistically enjoying the mayhem he is empowered to wreak if someone steps over the line. AJ Carey, a heavy equipment operator, arrives at the Puma in a bad mood. His wife has a restraining order against him. At the Puma, AJ is drawn to Marianne, one of the dancers, who flirts with him and makes him feel better, but after getting AJ to spend a great deal of money on drinks, she suddenly shuts off. AJ’s reaction to this draws Lonnie into action, and AJ is ejected from the club.
The last character at the Puma, the “elephant in the room” in this novel, is Bassam al-Jizani, a young man in his twenties, trained for a mission to begin in Boston on September 11. Bassam, one of seventeen children, has found purpose in life in a fundamentalist Islamist group, which teaches him about a different, stricter Islam and a purer way of behavior. Bassam has had no experience with women, and, at the Puma, he is determined to find out as much about them as possible until the day of his mission. Bassam, immediately drawn to April, who stands apart from the other women, pays a huge sum of money to be entertained by her in the Champagne Room. For April, flirting with Bassam is a way to make thousands of dollars, more then she has ever made in one night in her life—and a big step forward in her saving for a house for herself and Franny.
April’s decision to bring Franny to the Puma proves to be the biggest mistake she has ever made, and before the night is out, the lives of all the characters overlap, and the police are involved.
DuBus not only shows these characters in action, but he also gives the reader the characters’ backgrounds, their lives as children, the values they have been brought up with, their relationships with parents and/or siblings, and their marriages, if any. The reader feels s/he understands the characters as they struggle to make sense of the disaster which has befallen Franny and involved all these other characters. The suspense builds, not about 9/11, but about the small world of the Puma Club, and by the end of the novel, everyone’s world has changed. The narrative moves like a runaway train heading for a wreck, and few readers will be able to put this book down willingly.
Though the novel is a compelling read, I confess to having some misgivings about the novel, relative to the author’s inclusion of Bassam, the terrorist. Although some of the 9/11 terrorists were known to have visited a Florida club like the Puma, it feels somewhat opportunistic, to me, to have such a character inserted in this novel, which is primarily about the lives of the other characters at the Puma. Bassam and his life are described in great detail, but he is peripheral to the overall action of this novel, not integral to the plot, except in showing the contrast between his life, with its restrictions, and the free, but misery-filled, lives of April, Franny, Lonnie, AJ, and Jean.
Passages related to the lack of religion in the lives of some of the characters show the contrast between their lives and that of Bassam, but these passages do not seem to be part of a coherent, well-developed theme. The 9/11 hijackings are unrelated to the fact that Bassam (or any of the other terrorists) visited a strip club like the Puma or may have been entertained by someone like April/Spring. Though I think some readers will be attracted to this book because they want to “understand” something about the terrorists who might have visited a strip club, I’m not sure what, if anything, the author gained, thematically, by including Bassam in this plot.
- Amazon readers rating: from 134 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Cage Keeper and Other Stories (1989)
- Bluesman (1993)
- House of Sand and Fog (1999)
- The Garden of Last Days (2008)
- Dirty Love (October 2013)
- Townie: A Memoir (2011)
Movies from books:
- House of Sand and Fog (2003)
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- Official website for Andre Dubus III
- Wikipedia page for Andre Dubus III
- identityTheory interview with Andre Dubus III
- Bold Type interview with Andre Dubus III
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About the Author:
Andre Dubus III was born in Oceanside, California in 1959 but grew up in Massachusetts. He started his college career at Bradford College where is father (the author Andre DuBus II) taught. He went on to study sociology a the University of Texas. He eventually dropped out of a Ph.D. program in the theory of social change at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then roamed the country working at a variety of jobs, including carpenter, construction worker, bounty hunter, bartender, counselor at a treatment center, and actor, before making a career as a fiction writer.
His work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and the 1985 National Magazine Award for Fiction. He was one of three finalists for the 1994 Prix de Rome given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. House of Sand and Fog was a National Book Award finalist in 1999.
His cousin is writer James Lee Burke.
Dubus lives in Newbury, Massachusetts and teaches at the University of Massachusetts Lowell where he teaches genera writing, fiction, and directed study courses.