When I discovered Andre Dubus III had a new novel, I was of two minds. House of Sand and Fog, the only other novel of his I had read, was one of the most beautiful books I have ever encountered, but it also was one of the most disturbing. Frankly, I don't think I've ever gotten over reading that exquisite book. (I also think Carole has never completely forgiven me for sharing the book with her.)
So I approached The Garden of Last Days with some caution. And while I was not completely disappointed, I also was not completely satisfied.
Dubus has a gift of capturing the inner voice of his characters — but in this book, I found one of his main characters, Bassam, absolutely superfluous to the storyline. Every moment spent inside Bassam's head took away from the "real" story, which was suspenseful and heartbreaking. I understand why the character was introduced and threaded through the story, but his thoughts were not central to the story.
On September 6, 2001, April has a dilemma: her landlady/babysitter cannot watch her young daughter, Franny. Rather than call in sick to work, she decides to bring Franny with her to work that night.
What makes April different than the other women who have done that in a pinch is her occupation: April is a dancer at Puma, a "gentlemen's club" in southern Florida. Franny is young enough to not understand what's going on around her, April rationalizes, plus she'll be kept in the "house mother's" office and away from the rest of the club.
Lonnie is a bouncer who's good at his job, and a little sweet on April. He sees "pockets," problems on the floor, and he is quick to handle them. Without this, he would have to use his aggressive tendencies in less, er, wholesome ways. Lonnie is instrumental in setting the wheels in motion for the tragedy of the evening.
Jean is the lonesome landlady who loves Franny as her own. She has no one else, especially after the death of her beloved husband, and Franny is easy to love. April, not so much, but April has had a life of people not loving her enough, so she's not investing in anyone else at the moment. If April comes with Franny, Jean can cope — if only April will accept the generosity Jean has to offer.
Bassam calls himself "Mike" in the Champagne Room with April. He has a wad of $100 bills he's looking to give away, which will prove to him that he is master of his emotions and desires.
AJ is a conflicted man. He wants to be in his former life as husband and father to Deena and Cole, respectively, if only that pesky restraining order hadn't sent him to his mother's fold-out couch. Yet he finds himself in love with one of the dancers whom he thinks has given him the green light for a relationship. Whether he didn't let go of Marianne's hand soon enough may be in doubt, but not his wounded wrist. He's angry and he is in pain — and someone is going to pay.
There are a few other smaller players whose minds we encounter — Deena and Virginia, for example — and they are fabulous additions to the story. They help flesh out the characters and increase the suspense.
In contrast, Bassam as a major character felt forced. His inner workings were not essential to the main storyline. Frankly, I feel as though Dubus was hellbent on working the future terrorist attacks into this story, no matter the cost. While his interaction with April compels the action of the story, we didn't need to be in his head. Ever.
Bassam's language rhythms were awkward and interruptive to the narrative. I would like to credit this to Dubus' uncharacteristic inability to capture the spirit of translation, but I can't. It's a disconnect and it feels artificial and forced. (So does the brief experience of being Franny, but at least I could understand that interjection.)
What makes Dubus' characters so attractive is their familiarity. Reader are drawn to a particular quality in Dubus' characters, even if they are unfamiliar to the reader. In House of Sand and Fog, Massoud's desire for property and all it brought with it was tangible, familiar and beautifully expressed. It's the same for many characters in this novel: AJ is exquisitely downtrodden, Jean is echoingly lonely, Lonnie is adrift, April is not as clever as she thinks she is. Bassam never has a quality that attracts the reader; his inner self is not interesting to me and his connection to the other characters of the story is tenuous at best — not to mention that if I had to read just one more time about "nuhood" or a "qus," I was going to put down the book.
Let's talk a moment about my "favorite" character, AJ — who was spot-on, transparent. His mind was all over the place, but I could follow him wherever he went. He made sense even when he didn't. Every thought, every action, every rationalization was pure and crystal clear. AJ's desperation and pathetic justifications are perfectly woven into a tapestry of tragedy. His character was consistent and true, and a pleasure to read.
Had Dubus made Bassam a minor character — a chance encounter that affected April in multiple ways and lapped at the edges of one or two other characters in coincidental ways — this would have been a much more successful novel. Instead, Dubus offers a novel that, despite its strengths, is fractured by its weakness.