The Garden of Last Days

By Andre Dubus III

Norton. 535 pp. $24.95


Reviewed by Madison Smartt Bell


Most of the 535 pages of Andre Dubus III's massive new novel are devoted to events in and around a Florida strip club on the night of Sept. 6 and the morning of Sept. 7, 2001 - dates near enough to shimmer from the radiation of the infamous 9/11.

Dubus' perhaps excessively portentous title lets us know that we are taking a tour of the penultimate moments Before the Fall from . . . whatever. Whatever the United States and its citizens are considered to have fallen from on that day.

Aside from the title, Dubus doesn't belabor the reader too much with this point. The 9/11 connections are very slowly and carefully teased out. In the foreground is the story of a good time gone bad for a handful of people who converge on the Puma Club on the night of Sept. 6.

Star stripper April is forced to take her 3-year-old daughter to work because her usual caregiver, April's landlady Jean, has been rushed to the hospital with what turns out to be an anxiety attack.

Club staff paid by April to watch the child are, predictably, inattentive, and April herself is sequestered for more than an hour in a private room with a high-rolling Saudi named Bassam, whose money she can't afford to turn down.

By the time she gets out, little Franny (who, despite Dubus' conscientious effort to write a few pages in her point of view, has all the personality of the Maltese falcon) has slipped through a crack.

Jean, en route to the club to take charge of her, has another anxiety attack at the last minute and can't make herself go in. Franny wanders out of the building, to be somewhat inadvertently abducted by AJ Carey, a Puma Club regular whose wrist was broken earlier by a bouncer (for infraction of a contact rule with a dancer he has a crush on) and who has, somewhat curiously, returned with the idea of apologizing for this event.

A loving and frustrated parent himself, AJ takes Franny away because the Puma Club is no place for a child and, then, for the next several hours, can't figure out what to do with her. It is a tribute to Dubus' remarkable skill as a realist that the contrivances of this plot don't feel obvious.

Though this book is a very fast and entertaining read, some readers may feel that the author has thrown a few too many words at his subject.

A plaguing career problem for Andre Dubus

père

was that he couldn't write a full-length novel - his ideal form was the virtually unsalable, hundred-odd-page novella, pared to its purest essentials. In solving this problem, Dubus

fils

has achieved the opposite effect. It's not that this book is overwritten line by line - far from it. Every passage is expertly, elegantly achieved. It's that there may be a few lines too many. Do we really need to know, for example, all about AJ's mother's rape in a hotel room several decades before the principal story begins? Sometimes it's difficult to find the center of the story. This novel is not just a slice of life, but the whole pie.

Then again, what's wrong with that? Dubus' deep delving into the histories of these characters is what makes them so profoundly believable, and that credibility in turn gets us over any difficulties in the plot. Different readers will have different favorites; I happen to be more interested in April's complicated psychological accommodation of the roles of young mother and exotic dancer than in Jean's grandmotherly longing for Franny, though both are equally well-rendered. Turning the terrorist Bassam into a surprisingly sympathetic character is a genuine tour de force (so well-researched that an Arabic glossary might have come in handy).

Wisely, Dubus stops short of the best-known events of 9/11, though most of them are sufficiently rehearsed in Bassam's sacrificially virginal imagination. The darkness of this narrative doesn't come from the part that all possible readers already know, but from its surprisingly gloomy view of the vanity of human wishes.

Bassam may be the most obvious prisoner of delusional thinking (required for a jihadi suicide mission), unless maybe it's AJ, who somehow makes himself believe he can steer the catastrophe of his night at the Puma to a workmen's-comp jackpot and reunion with his estranged wife and son.

Read closely, though, and you'll see that Jean and April have no more control over their own lives than the flamboyantly ill-starred men - or most of the numerous supporting players, for that matter.

Things just happen to all of them, sometimes for worse and sometimes for better, but in either case just as inexorably.

Madison Smartt Bell, the author of numerous novels and short stories, was a National Book Award finalist for his 1995 novel, "All Soul's Rising."

Andre Dubus III will appear at the Free Library of Philadelphia, Central Library, 1901 Vine St., at 7 p.m. on June 10. No tickets required.

Information: 215-567-4341 or www.library.phila.gov.