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.
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.
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."
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?
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."