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Desperate Lives Collide
In Sarasota

by Wendy Smith

THE TROUBLE STARTS WHEN A STRIPPER has to take her three-year-old to work with her. April doesn’t have much choice: her husband took off when Franny was an infant, never bothering about child support, and the Puma Club for Men pays a whole lot better than the sandwich shop where she worked in New Hampshire. Mother and daughter have only been in Sarasota, Florida, for three weeks, the landlady who’s been kind enough to babysit just wound up in the hospital, and April doesn’t know anyone else. Telling herself everything will be fine, she stashes Franny with some Disney tapes in the office of Tina, who schedules the women’s routines and promises to keep an eye on the toddler.

This arrangement, hastily improvised on an evening in early September 2001, breaks apart on the rage of two men. Bassam, a Saudi who’s tossing around fistfuls of cash, pays April $200 (the club gets $300) for an hour of her time in the Champagne Room, then ponies up another $500 for a second hour. While April uneasily fends off the increasingly aggressive questions of this morose Middle Easterner, Franny wanders unobserved to the Puma Club’s kitchen door. AJ, a construction worker, has been thrown out of the club for grabbing another stripper’s hand (customers aren’t allowed to touch the ‘girls’) and refusing to let go. Nursing a broken wrist (courtesy of a club bouncer) in the parking lot, he sees Franny crying at the door. Himself the father of a little boy around the same age, AJ on impulse scoops up Franny and drives off in his car.

And it’s pretty much all downhill from there in this searing tale of quietly desperate lives during the ‘last days’ of American innocence (some might say ignorance) before the 9/11 attacks. Andre Dubus III builds on the strengths of his first two novels to craft a wide-ranging yet tightly focused drama. As he did in Bluesman, he investigates with unsentimental sympathy the struggles of working-class people who can’t understand why the American Dream seems to be just beyond their grasp. In the bestselling Oprah Book Club selection House of Sand and Fog, he skillfully conveyed the two principals’ opposing points of view; here he gets into the heads of a half-dozen characters, poignantly showing how different people can have radically divergent perceptions of the same events. And his brilliant depiction of an embittered Iranian immigrant in House of Sand and Fog is surpassed by this novel’s scarifying portrait of Bassam, who routinely refers to American women as “whores” and expresses nothing but contempt for the infidels he sees all around him, “asleep in the evil they do.”

It’s not meant to be a secret that Bassam is one of the 9/11 hijackers; references to his flying lessons and impending trip to Boston make that clear early on. Dubus wants readers to explore with him the deeper mystery of what would drive someone to commit such a monstrous act. He could have dismissed Bassam as a disgusting hypocrite who despises unveiled women but goes to a strip club and (in the novel’s most distasteful scene) has sex with a prostitute on the night before the attack. Instead, he shows us an unhappy, very young man — April notices that they’re about the same age, in their early 20s — plagued by feelings of despair and worthlessness rooted in his adolescence. Flashbacks show Bassam as the resentful, dissolute son of an affluent Saudi builder, brought up short by the death of his beloved older brother in a car wreck, blaming Western temptations for leading them both astray and turning to fundamentalism as the answer to all his questions.

By letting Bassam’s memories of the past reveal his motivations, just as he does with the rest of the characters, the author implicitly asks us to acknowledge that someone who does something so evil is still a human being. As the narrative shifts among five perspectives, we see that AJ, like Bassam, has focused his fury about his disorderly life on the women around him. AJ grew up listening to his mother have drunken sex with various men; he doesn’t even know who his father was. He’d been the night manager at a Walgreen’s, they were going to send him to a training clinic, but he got one of the clerks pregnant, married her and took a better paying job with her father. Then “she didn’t like to have a good time any more,” he blacked her eye during a fight, and now she has a restraining order and he can’t even see his son. That stripper at the Puma Club seemed nice, but she didn’t really like him, she was just after his money. And how dare that other, stuck-up stripper leave her little girl alone in that sleazy place? He was just trying to protect Franny by taking her away, but what was he going to do with her now?

Dubus ratchets up the tension over the course of a single night, as April frantically hunts for her daughter and AJ tries to figure out where he can safely stash her so he can get on with his pathetic scheme to fake an accident at work and get a big payoff from his boss for his broken wrist. We’re reasonably sure that AJ wouldn’t harm Franny, but we’ve seen enough of his simmering anger and capacity for violence to be nervous. All of Dubus’ characters are three-dimensional and fully human, which means they have both ugly and tender emotions, they make good and bad choices in their lives. Sometimes they get to redeem themselves, sometimes they don’t.

The closing pages send Bassam to his fate, while April and AJ face the consequences of their actions. One gets off fairly lightly; the other will spend years paying for a mistake. Seven years later, in brief vignettes, we see that both have changed and grown. Dark though the subject matter is, The Garden of Last Days (W.W. Norton) grips readers with its taut narrative and warm compassion for all its hard-pressed characters. •

from the July-August 2008 issue