The days before 9-11, stripped and laid bare



In a word, that is “The Garden of Last Days,” by Andre Dubus III, best-selling author of “House of Sand and Fog” – also no walk in the park.

The story weaves together the lives of several people in the last days before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The chapters are short, but the narrative pace is very slow. The first 400 pages center on the Friday night before the attacks, much of it inside a Sarasota, Fla., strip club. The deliberate pace combined with unlikable characters – a stripper who takes her 3-year-old daughter to work that night and the jihadist she dances for – make the book surprisingly put-downable at first.

But stick with it and you might be surprised at how you feel by the end.

Dubus masterfully sets the scene. You feel the mugginess of South Florida. You smell the cigarettes, cognac and sweat permeating the strip club. You sense the desperation of the characters. Basically, you feel uncomfortably plopped into an unseemly side of America.

Like I said, intense.

Dubus based his novel, which started as a short story, on real people and an image he couldn't get out of his head.

“In the weeks after that brutal September morning,” Dubus explains in a note to reviewers, “we began to learn something of the hijackers. We learned that many of them had trained in Florida, that they'd been seen visiting strip clubs. This was confusing. How could these young men be self-described holy warriors but also frequent strip clubs? But what lingered for me even more than this was the image of cash on a bedroom bureau in Florida, money earned by a woman who'd danced for one or more of them.”

The main characters are April, a stripper who dances at the Puma Club for Men as “Spring,” and Bassam, a young Sunni extremist from Saudi Arabia, who hires her to dance for him for hours in a private room. There's also A.J., a down-on-his-luck construction worker who gets tossed from the club for holding hands with a stripper, and Jean, who is April's panic attack-prone landlady.

What the characters have in common: They all feel they have no choices other than the desperate ones they make.

Bassam's is the most interesting and powerful story. He's conflicted. His beliefs are tested. He's both disgusted and intrigued by April/Spring. Bassam helps a mother with her baby stroller and can't picture killing women. Later, near the end, he wants to kill the prostitute his terrorist friend hires for them so they won't die virgins. But soon after his turn with her is over, he realizes what he wants with her is “more time.”

He's bold and confident about his mission and eager for the world to know his name and what he did in the name of Allah. But he has doubts and fears. One passage near the end, when Bassam is eating what could be his last meal in a Boston hotel, memorably reveals his inner conflict.

“… It is as if Bassam's blood has grown cooler by two or three degrees, the fear he begins to fear now. The inescapable fear before battle. But what is this fear? Surely it is not of death. No, it is the fear of failing and remaining here in this life. That is this feeling. The fear of living.”

My reward for sticking with the novel was this surprise: I empathized with this terrorist. I knew all too well that thousands of lives were doomed, but I hoped just one would be saved.