‘The Garden of Last Days’ by Andre Dubus III

The Garden of Last Days

A Novel

Andre Dubus III

W.W. Norton: 538 pp., $24.95

“Terrorist stag parties.” This leering phrase was how the Wall Street Journal’s, in October 2001, characterized widely reported visits by the Sept. 11 hijackers to strip clubs in Las Vegas and Florida. Their fundamentalist strictures notwithstanding, these supposedly devout men were reputed to have indulged in lap dances and other pleasures of the flesh in the weeks before the attacks. Seven years on, much remains ambiguous about the hijackers, and it’s not clear how much credence these accounts deserve.

The 9/11 Commission Report makes no mention of strip clubs, however, nor does “Perfect Soldiers,” Los Angeles Times reporter Terry McDermott’s thoroughly researched 2005 book about the hijackers. McDermott offers the useful observation that “there were all sorts of retrospective sightings of the group or individuals within it. [Mohamed] Atta, in particular, with his distinctive and later well-publicized face, was seen everywhere. Or, at least that is what people remembered afterwards.” Nearly as interesting as the hijackers’ precise whereabouts is the psychic need that prompted many people, in the wake of Sept. 11, to believe they had seen the attackers, sometimes in seedy locales that would discredit their holy-warrior pretensions of spiritual discipline and purity.

Still, the hijackers may well have debauched themselves; who can say for sure? McDermott writes that “several of the Saudi men in Boston made a series of telephone calls trying to arrange for prostitutes on the last night. In the end, they thought the prices were too high and didn’t employ anyone.” Andre Dubus III, author of the bestselling “House of Sand and Fog,” accepts the sex-club anecdotes as genuine sightings -- or, at least, as plausible enough to provide the foundation for “The Garden of Last Days,” a big, uneven novel with aspirations it can’t quite fulfill. Claiming in a note accompanying the novel’s press kit that he has “stayed loyal to the historical record,” Dubus has fashioned a tale that takes as a crucial episode the encounter between April Connors, a Florida stripper who performs at the Puma Club for Men under the stage name Spring, and a Sept. 11 hijacker, a composite figure named Bassam al-Jizani, on the night of Sept. 6, 2001. Mohamed Atta, called “the Egyptian” and “Amir,” appears as the coldly single-minded jihadi directing the mission, and Osama bin Laden himself (as “Abu Abdullah”) makes a cameo in one of Bassam’s recollections.

Dubus has said that he “had no desire to write about September 11th,” which makes his purported fealty to the historical record all the more puzzling. The impression of close adherence to fact is bolstered by his inclusion of verbatim transcriptions from papers the hijackers left behind. But if we’re to accept that we’re reading a fictionalized documentary of the days leading up to Sept. 11, then the conflicts Dubus creates within Bassam -- primarily, and relentlessly, his self-lacerating war against his sexual proclivities, but also his resentment toward Atta and a nascent sense of estrangement from the other terrorists -- are drained of tension. And although rendered in microscopic (indeed, prurient) detail, Bassam’s two-hour session with April in one of the Puma Club’s private rooms is an episode of fleeting but portentous contact -- “Someday, Insha’Allah,” he tells her, “you will know me. . . . Everyone will” -- that can never evolve into a genuine relationship, despite his obsession with her.

Converging with the Sept. 11 plot line is the story of the disappearance of April’s 3-year-old daughter, Franny, while she is entertaining her terrorist customer. The customary baby-sitter -- her kindly landlady, Jean -- has been hospitalized to undergo tests for recurring panic attacks, so April, unable to stay away from a “big money night, seven to eight hundred take-home,” brings Franny to work and asks a co-worker to look after her. Sex clubs being what they are, this arrangement is bound for trouble, and unsurprisingly the toddler wanders off and is whisked away from the club’s parking lot by AJ Carey, a sulking construction worker who has already imbibed several drinks too many.

To write a novel about Sept. 11 is inevitably to render a verdict about the nation the terrorists attacked, and AJ is a pure product of Dubus’ grim America: angry, resentful, volatile and bewildered at having a life different from the sort he imagines he ought to be living. (Although she is mostly sympathetically portrayed, April too, in her preoccupation with money -- cash exerts a magnetic pull on her, and she imagines giving herself a life of ease through real estate -- seems an emblem of an American obsession.) AJ has no designs on Franny other than to be her protector, but his judgment has been clouded by alcohol, self-pity and physical pain: Earlier in the evening, his wrist was fractured when he was thrown out of the club for holding hands with his favorite dancer, and he then paid a reckless visit to his estranged wife, Deena, in violation of a restraining order. Rather than have his injury treated, he concocts a scheme to stage a workplace accident the following morning, in hopes of collecting a huge payout. His confusedly well-intentioned abduction of Franny caps a sequence of self-destructive acts.

As AJ makes his drunken rounds in the bleak Florida night, we are given large samplings of his desperate musings: "[H]e was going to rent a cabana out on Longboat Key, open the windows and sleep in a Gulf breeze for days or weeks. Then he’d wake up, shower and shave, go take that anger class he promised Deena he would. She’d let him move back home and they’d both work hard not to fall back to how it used to be.” Dubus, who has a talent for evoking despondency and disappointment, extends a generous sense of empathy toward his characters; people like AJ and April are meant to seem better -- or, at least, more worthy of our attention -- than their actions suggest.

Dubus’ prose at times achieves a vivid, muscular immediacy. Unfortunately, he is unable to pull off the most audacious task he has set for himself -- inhabiting the mind of a terrorist -- because of the awkward idiom in which he couches Bassam’s thoughts: “The time of living so haram is through. . . . The curtain is parted by one of the men paid to protect these whores, this one tall and without muscle, looking down at Bassam as if he were a dog, a dog someone should have caged such a very long time ago.” It’s perfectly legitimate for Dubus to insert Arabic words such as haram (“impure”) to give a sense of Bassam’s origins and outlook, but the faux-exotic diction and mannered locutions (such as “without muscle”) make his inner cogitations read like a stilted translation.

One can’t fault Dubus’ intentions in seeking to plumb the depths of the jihadist mind. In the current climate, even a flawed attempt at comprehension may be regarded as a laudable effort. But fiction that draws heavily on historical fact must be held to the same standard as the best nonfiction. The fascinating, often surprising insights of a book such as Steve Coll’s recent “The Bin Ladens” show how much we have yet to learn about our terrorist enemies. Our imaginative writers have some catching up to do. *

James Gibbons is an associate editor at the Library of America.