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The wanderers

At a Florida strip club, three troubled characters are drawn toward disaster on the eve of 9/11

(MICHELLE THOMPSON)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John Dufresne
June 1, 2008

The Garden of Last Days
By Andre Dubus III
Norton, 537 pp., $24.95

April's doing all right for herself. She's a single mom, making $10,000 a month dancing and otherwise entertaining customers at the Puma Club for Men in Sarasota, Fla. She's got a cozy little flat near the bay and a built-in babysitter for her 3-year-old daughter in her landlady, Jean Hanson. April has come to depend on the empowering income. She has plans for a modest real estate empire on Florida's Gulf Coast someday. She's got $50,000 in the bank already, and maybe she's getting a little greedy. So when Jean has one of her panic attacks and is taken to the hospital, April decides not to call in sick just this once, but to take little Franny to work. What could go wrong?

AJ Carey is one of the woebegone regulars at the Puma Club, and AJ, well, he's had a mild run of bad luck lately. His wife, Deena, took out a restraining order after he hit her for only the second time. Now he can't see his little boy, Cole, the love of his life. He's behind in his child-support payments, hates his dead-end job, and he's back living with his mother. He's sleeping on the foldout couch, and she's hooked up to an oxygen tank, but at least she's trying to cut back on the smoking. The one bright light in AJ's life these days is Marianne, a dancer at the club. He's thinking he could sweep her off her feet if only she'd hold his hand. He has mistaken a commercial transaction for romance. AJ is what could go wrong.

Bassam al-Jizani is the appalling kind of zealot we find at the fringes of religion, a man who has lost faith in himself and found it in a holy cause, which brings meaning to his unavailing life and offers him the promise of ineluctable power and an eternity of pleasure in the sweet by-and-by. "I am just a baboon in a thorn tree," he says. "I am nothing." Bassam is in America to rain death and terror down on the polytheists, the idolators, the kufar, those who reject Islam. He's here to fly a plane into the World Trade Center, "insha'Allah," as he says, God willing.

Bassam is a true believer, but he's not without his demons, which explains why he's at the Puma Club squandering money on forbidden pleasures on this, one of his last evenings on earth. Only nothing seems to please him, unless it's passing judgment and stoking his hatred for the infidel. Bassam lectures April in the Champagne Room, buying her attention with a lavishment of cash. His is the smug vanity of the selfless, and the insufferable arrogance of the certain. The money buys him time and keeps April from checking on Franny, who's being watched, April trusts, by the house mother. Meanwhile, AJ gets himself booted out of the club and has his wrist snapped and broken by Lonnie the bouncer, so when Franny wanders out into the parking lot, AJ is there to whisk her away from all this moral corruption. A little Benadryl in the Slush Puppie will keep her sleeping until he can figure out what do to with her; a few extra-strength Motrin and a bag of ice ought to ease the pain in his useless arm.

The brilliance of the novel, the first by Andre Dubus III since "The House of Sand and Fog," lies in his relentless and penetrating examination of these three sometimes infuriating, but always fascinating, characters. He understands that everything Bassam denies in himself is precisely what makes him human and compelling. The novel is dedicated to the late writer Larry Brown, and AJ hails from the same grim province as Brown's benighted losers, his pickup-driving, beer-swilling rednecks. AJ is an unexpectedly complex man with simple aspirations and a generous heart who suffers from chronic bad judgment. He can't get out of his own way. Bassam doesn't believe in second chances; AJ won't survive without one. He's lost his way, but he still insists on looking for the shortcut. He's emboldened by unfounded hope and encouraged by magical thinking. If he could only catch a break, a lucrative insurance settlement, say, why then surely he could realize his humble dreams and maybe even strike it rich.

Compared with this pair, April is a wellspring of reason and self-reliance, if not prudence. When Lonnie tells her that customers "blame you for their weakness," he strikes a major thematic chord. Bassam blames the infidel; April, her babysitters; AJ blames his ex, his boss, the judge, but he also understands his own culpability. He longs to be the man he believes he is, a man who would do the right thing, but he also understands what a sorry wretch he really is.

"The Garden of Last Days" is storytelling of the finest kind: unforgettable and desperate characters caught up in a plot thundering toward catastrophe. Maybe the end of the novel is rushed, or maybe I think it is because I wanted to read another hundred pages. Take your toddler to a strip club? What were you thinking? Murder thousands of innocents? Kidnap a child? Why on earth do people do the unthinkable? Dubus knows that you may not make sense out of the incomprehensible, but you can make art. He has done just that in this incandescent and absorbing novel.

John Dufresne's most recent book is the story collection "Johnny Too Bad."

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