After the attacks of September 11th, it seemed like everyone was asking the same question: Why do they (the terrorists) hate us (Americans)? Some offered various answers, and some argued the answer didn’t matter. What mattered was that the terrorists killed lots of Americans and now Americans should kill lots of terrorists. For a while trying to learn why the terrorists hate us seemed like giving them credibility. But now Andre Dubus III’s new novel, The Garden of Last Days, takes a long, hard look at why one fictional terrorist hates Americans so much. Dubus follows Bassam, a 9/11 hijacker, from a strip club in Florida all the way through the checkpoint at Boston’s Logan International Airport, giving readers a detailed map of one religious fundamentalist’s thoughts.
Almost the whole novel takes place during one night in Florida, when April (a stripper) can’t use her regular babysitter, and so she decides to bring her daughter to work. Bassam visits the strip club with sixteen grand in cash. He takes April (who goes by “Spring” at the club) into the V.I.P. lounge. While they’re in the lounge, April’s daughter wanders outside, where A.J., a man with very little to be happy about in life, puts her in his truck and drives away. To recap: a stripper brings her baby to work; an Islamic fundamentalist sins like an American; and a drunk drives away with a baby. Through each event, Dubus shows us why these characters think what they’re doing is a good idea. A.J., for example, is very drunk, and he sees so much danger around the little girl who has wandered out into the strip club’s parking lot, sees it as his duty to keep her safe in his truck and drive away.
Dubus’ ability to show how characters see the world and rationalize their decisions is put to good use with Bassam, who has to justify going to a strip club to see naked women—something forbidden to those of his faith. We learn that Bassam and his fellow terrorists think they have to drink alcohol and go to strip clubs every now and then to blend in with Americans. But on the night the novel begins, Bassam heads to the strip club by himself, having already gone with his friends. It’s clear that deep down he just wants to see some naked women. Excepting the fact that we already know he’s a terrorist, this is our first clue that Bassam is completely unhinged.
Meaning of Jihad
Dubus is careful to avoid casting Bassam as the representative for every Muslim. Bassam remembers a discussion he had with his father about the meaning of Jihad. “Jihad is this: it is a struggle within yourself, that is all,” his father explains. “It is the struggle to live as Allah wishes us to live. As good people. Do you understand? As good people.” But Bassam doesn’t trust his father. His father has built Mosques, but he’s also built buildings for Americans in their home country. And Bassam has linked Americans to the death of his brother Khalid, who had illegally listened to American music in his car and was later killed in an accident. Dubus makes it clear that Bassam thinks Allah killed his brother for embracing American culture. At this point, we begin to see that underneath this insane terrorist is a man who mourns his brother and is desperate to atone for his brother’s behavior.
“It’s possible to walk away from this book thinking that all people—Americans and terrorists alike— are deeply flawed, and therefore have no business playing judge.”
Bassam pays April well for their time together in the V.I.P. room, but instead of having sex with her, they talk. And Bassam asks a question he never asks himself: Why are you doing this?
She took a breath. “For my kid, okay? I do it for her.”
He glanced up at her, shook his head. “No.”
“Yes.” She was angry and she didn’t care if he got angry back or not. She had his money and Andy would be here soon and this rich little foreigner could go f*** with somebody else.
He was smiling at her, his eyes bright. “You do it for this.” He tapped her scar, scratched lightly the hair over it.
“You do it for skin—what is this way you say?—for flesh.”
“Yes, for your love of it. Even if you had no children you would sell your flesh.”
Bassam clearly has an agenda—to point out that Americans are secular to a fault. That may be so, but Bassam came to a strip club to prove it, which is a lot like proving Americans are fat by going to McDonald’s. Bassam chose this place because he wants to hate Americans, to make sure they are as immoral as the fundamentalists told him they were. And even when April gives him a good explanation why she does what she does, he rejects it. Bassam feeds his own vision of the American, the one he is comfortable with killing.
Bassam struggles with his faith and his desire for the best of what life has to offer until he disappears through the security checkpoints at Logan. We never see him again. Dubus writes quick, plot-satisfying endings for each of the characters and perhaps simplifies Bassam’s psychological responses to grief and fear, but it’s possible to walk away from this book thinking that all people—Americans and terrorists alike—are deeply flawed, and therefore have no business playing judge, jury and executioner for each other.
But let’s not forget that Bassam is only one of several characters Dubus pays close attention to. Told in the third person, Dubus’ prose takes on the shape and tenor of each character’s interior monologue. Bassam’s sentences are short and awkward, and Arabic words appear with context, not explanation. April’s voice is a typical American’s, though Dubus does his readers a favor by avoiding verbal ticks. And for A.J., who is so angry at the world for dealing him a terrible hand, Dubus uses sentence fragments to form A.J.’s irrational, drunken thoughts—the perfect tool, it turns out, for tying poorly thought out plans together.
The Garden of Last Days is Dubus’ second novel, his first being the famous Oprah selection, House of Sand and Fog, which later became a successful film. He’s published short stories since then, most memorably one called “Marla,” in which Dubus does exactly what he does in The Garden of Last Days. He inhabits the protagonist’s mind, in this case a woman who has complicated relationships with men, and exposes her hopes and fears compassionately and without judgment. It’s been reported that The Garden of Last Days was twice as long and contained many other characters before shrinking to the book on the shelves today. Perhaps cutting A.J. from the story would have kept the story simpler and more focused. But it’s hard to think about what’s necessary and what’s not while reading The Garden of Last Days, since everything seems so real, immediate and true.