sábado, 23 de março de 2013

The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III Review by John M. Formy-Duval

The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III
Review by John M. Formy-Duval

W. W. Norton & Company, 2008

Each of us can remember where we were on certain days in our lives. Days of national significance (assassinations of the Kennedys and King) or personal (birth of a child or death of a parent) are indelibly imprinted on our minds.

It was a day like any other. I was walking down the hall in my school when a teacher told me that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Towers. The questions flowed. Accident? Intentional? Who? Why? I cannot, however, remember the couple of days preceeding this horrendous event; they were just part of the unfolding days of my life. Andre Dubus III  imagines a few of those days in a way that hardly any of us will ever forget. In doing so, he has created a real world that is utterly plausible, peopled by "real" characters going about their mundane activities, which just happen to lead to something extraordinary.

Dubus had an image of money on a dresser and began a short story about one of the strippers who had entertained one of the hijackers 3 nights prior to 9/11. As his imagination opened up, he wondered how she might feel afterwards when she learned the true identity of the man from whom she got this money. But, as he wrote, it became clear that Bassam, the hijacker, needed to be heard. There was more than one side to this story, and a novel began to emerge.
The Garden of Last Days is the best novel of the year. Instantly interesting and engaging, it grabs one's attention and holds it to the last page. It is compelling, thought-provoking reading that requires the reader to bring a "willing suspension of disbelief" for full appreciation. Strippers are human, too. Hijackers are human also. It is this last characterization that causes the most dis-ease as we read, but the effort is well worth the journey. We must trust the story and our imagination for there is a danger in judging one another, a process which adds to conflict between individuals, communities, and cultures.

Seven primary voices are heard throughout. Dubus cut out an additional five voices and some 250 pages, including a gay professor who may very well appear in another work. Told in the third person subjective, each characterization is alive and rounded. April is a stripper at the Puma Club, a single mother who is raising her pre-school daughter with love. She does not like her work, but she is very good at it and wants to earn enough money to ensure that she and Franny are secure. On this night, however, April, who dances as Spring, has to bring Franny to the club because Jean, her sitter, has gone to the hospital with heart issues. This sets into motion a string of actions that threatens to ruin the lives we see within the world of this novel and, by extension, lives in our real world.
Bassam al-Jizani, a young man from Saudia Arabia, is in the club that night drinking heavily, smoking, and spending money as if there were no tomorrow. His primary task is to not draw attention to himself, to blend in. He hires April/Spring for a private dance in the Champagne Room. He wants to know her real name and why she dances. She is "Spring" in the club and does not want to share her name, but she does. Despite his adherence to the Qur'an, Bassam has met his "virgins" on earth. He is devoted to the task ahead of him, yet he is conflicted. While he abhors what he is doing in the club, there is a fascination with the girls and especially the beer and "the feeling of freedom it gives to him." Dubus did not want to give Bassam a voice, but he kept insisting. Bassam is contrasted with his father, a moderate Muslim, who tells him that jihad really means "a struggle within yourself, that is all. It is a struggle to live as Allah wishes us to live. As good people..."

AJ is separated from Deena and their son whom he dotes on. A good ole boy construction worker, he lives now with his mother and drinks too much at the Puma Club. Drunk, he is thrown out this night and his wrist broken in the process. Lonnie Pike is the bouncer who threw him out. Nearly illiterate, he avidly listens to Books on Tape and has strong feelings for April. Later, Franny walks out of the club and AJ picks her up only to protect her, as he sees it, and because he misses his son. "He liked her spunk, but what would come of it? Spunk turns to sassy turns to bitch turns to whore. Just like her mama."

While some may criticize The Garden of Last Days because the ending for a particular character is a foregone conclusion, isn't that the way Life actually is? Each of us makes choices in what we do. Each choice helps make us become what we will become. Some of those choices are self-limiting, leading us toward a specific path, in some cases a path of destruction. For example, the anger evinced by AJ makes it clear that he is headed for trouble. Yet, at the end, he seems to have achieved some sort of redemption. Reread all those Shakespearean tragedies with their families destroyed and blood everywhere. Every one of them ends on a slight uptick. In "Romeo and Juliet," for example, the two families reconcile. The two kids are still dead, but at least the families have learned and grown. Bassam dies - we know this; I'm not giving anything away - but the other characters learn from their experience.

When April learns of Bassam's actions, she can only say he was "like a boy. Just some drunk and lonely boy." Listen to the news tonight and you will hear a similar statement. A reporter will give a story about someone who has murdered his wife and children. A neighbor will be quoted as saying, "He was such a good neighbor. He seemed to be such a loving husband. I don't understand how he could have done such a thing." We never know. What can we say?

On the way to a Ph.D. in political science, Dubus went to Massachusetts and took a year off. He lived in a welfare neighborhood, worked construction during the day, and read philosophy at night. He was dating a girl who was taking a writing class, and began to read fiction. Dubus was inspired to write a short story about people. It wasn't very good, but he was hooked. While writing, he was more "Andre" than ever. In the process of writing The Garden of Last Days he saw a Charlie Rose interview with the director Mike Nichols who noted that the storyteller asks what it is like to be in a story.

This means for Dubus that he becomes "pregnant with a story." Cells are multiplying and he does not analyze it, think about it, or talk about it. "Ideas bubble up and get sublimated" then result in a story. He writes a couple of hours each day in long-hand with a pencil, then types it into his laptop the next day and revises. Writing is "not telling but finding something," he says. He quotes Grace Paley, "You write what you don't know you don't know."
Married to the dancer Fontaine Dallas, they live outside Boston with their three children. Andre Dubus teaches writing when he is not writing himself.

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