- The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III
- Hardcover: 544 pages
- Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co. (May 17, 2008)
- ISBN-13: 978-039304165-1
Back-of-the-book blurb: One early September night in Florida, a stripper brings her daughter to work. April’s usual babysitter is in the hospital, so she decides it’s best to have her three-year-old daughter close by, watching children’s videos in the office, while she works.
Except that April works at the Puma Club for Men. And tonight she has an unusual client, a foreigner both remote and too personal, and free with his money. Lots of it, all cash. His name is Bassam. Meanwhile, another man, AJ, has been thrown out of the club for holding hands with his favorite stripper, and he’s drunk and angry and lonely.
From these explosive elements comes a relentless, raw, searing, passionate, page-turning narrative, a big-hearted and painful novel about sex and parenthood and honor and masculinity. Set in the seamy underside of American life at the moment before the world changed, it juxtaposes lust for domination with hunger for connection, sexual violence with family love. It seizes the reader by the throat with the same psychological tension, depth, and realism that characterized Andre Dubus’s #1 bestseller, House of Sand and Fog–and an even greater sense of the dark and anguished places in the human heart.
She Is Too Fond of Books’ review: The Garden of Last Days is an ambitious “chunkster” of a novel, weighing in at 535 pages. The vast majority takes place during one night in early September 2001, at a fictitious strip club on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Bassam, who instructs the stripper to call him “Mike,” just wants to look and talk as he and “Spring” sit in the private “champagne room” for high rollers (or, rather, those with thick rolls of bills, who can pay the premium for the one-on-one time).
We learn a bit about Bassam and what has brought him to the Puma (but not yet what will transpire in a few days); we learn how “Spring” couldn’t resist the siren call of high wages paid to young women who are willing to strip for tips – and how she segments this unsavory aspect of her life by never, never, never letting the johns know her real name. It is, in fact, “April,” and she sells this knowledge to Bassam for a high bid. She also never, never, never brings her four-year-old daughter anywhere near this unsavory side of her life … until tonight.
In the meantime, a john named AJ has been kicked out of the club for inappropriately touching a stripper (there are limits, apparently). He’s also steaming from a restraining order his wife has served, and angry and hurt that he hasn’t been able to see his young son, Cole, for several weeks. AJ cooks up a scheme that will allow him to reunite with his wife, be seen as a hero in his son’s eyes, and gain a small fortune that will catapult the family out of debt.
Dubus neatly places us in the perspective of the main characters (April, Bassam, Jean – April’s landlord and Franny’s babysitter, AJ, and Lonnie – a bouncer at the club. We learn their backstories through an omniscient narrator who can share their thoughts without clunky “she thought” and “he pondered.” This makes for a nice smooth read into the darkest thoughts and questionable motivations of the characters.
Things turns messy pretty quickly. I won’t say more than is on the book jacket; suffice it to say that it’s a very busy night to fill all those pages! There is a lot of detail. Could some of it been trimmed? Perhaps; but my understanding is that this is Dubus’ style. It certainly gives the reader a good picture of how the characters got to where they are. Sharing their thoughts in this way creates a bit of empathy, too.
I had a hard time connecting with Bassam at all; his storyline of being in Florida for flying lessons, frequenting a strip club, then flying up to Boston for a mission in the second week of September 2001 just made my stomach turn. I wonder if this is the reaction Dubus was expecting from readers?
This was the first book I’ve read by Andre Dubus III, and I have to wonder if I should have started with his House of Sand and Fog, which was a finalist in the National Book Award, 1999. Dubus has also written a collection of short fiction (The Cagekeeper and Other Stories), an earlier novel (Bluesman), and a memoir (Townie, 2011).
I began this book in audiobook format, on a car trip that lasted about six hours. The narration by Dan John Miller was so uncomfortable (he pulled off accents and voice differentiation of male characters, but female voices were overly effeminate “baby doll” voices) that I switched to print when I returned home.
Using Fyrefly’s Book Blog Search Engine, I found a few other blog reviews:
- Nomad Reader is much on the fence as I am, she says “I enjoyed it enough to recommend it because I want someone else I know to talk about it with. The book isn’t as good as the idea behind the book, but that idea is brilliant enough to make it worthwhile.”
- Lisa at Lit and Life speaks to the deep characterizations, saying “You might think that with people like this, it would be hard to feel anything for any of them. But Dubus does so an excellent job of making these people, whose lives have led them down this path, two dimensional.”
I tried to find a more positive blogger review to share, but came up empty. Despite that, I’m not giving up on Andre Dubus III, and do plan to read House of Sand and Fog.