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SevierCountyNews.com featured columnist David Worley teaches English at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee.
[caption id="attachment_751" align="alignleft" width="220" caption="The Garden of Last Days"][/caption]
Andre Dubus is best known for his third novel, “House of Sand and Fog,” not only because it is interesting and relevant, but also because it was made into a successful film. It portrays the sad fate of a Middle Eastern family who moves to the United States and tries to fit into American culture while preserving its own traditions. His fourth novel also addresses the clash of cultures, but on a much larger scale.
“The Garden of Last Days” explores people’s infatuation with self-transformation and deliverance. April, a divorcee who performs under the name of Spring as a stripper in The Puma Club for Men, works to accumulate enough money so she can leave this career and support herself and her three-year-old daughter Franny. Since she saves her money and has accumulated several thousand dollars, this is a more realistic dream than those most of the characters in this novel pursue.
Bassam, the other main character, has been sent with his two companions on a mission seeking holy martyrdom, after which each expects to spend eternity in a sacred garden with his own harem of beautiful women willing to gratify his every wish. The Puma Club is, among other things, a caricature of that dream. At some level Bassam has an awakening in the Puma Club that seems both sexual and intellectual, as he wonders if there isn’t a contradiction between avoiding sex in this world and enjoying it forever in Paradise. This question might have been the beginning of his journey into becoming more fully aware, more fully human, but the journey is cut short. The last we see of him, he and his two companions are at the airport, on the way to complete their mission at The World Trade Center.
The novel also presents several fully developed and interesting secondary characters, each of whom is complex and believable. The skill with which Dubus weaves their stories together into a complex narrative, entering the minds of all of them—sometimes in rapid succession, at other times lingeringly—gives the reader an experience that feels both cinematic and musical. By the novel’s end we feel we know them intimately.
AJ has worked hard all of his life, and he is justly proud of that. He runs a bulldozer for a construction company, has difficulty controlling his temper, has failed in his marriage, keenly misses his son Cole, and uses alcohol and other substances to dull the pain that comes from carrying the burden of wounded conscience combined with self-righteousness. He dreams desperately of being a good father and husband. As we finish this novel, which witheringly satirizes our obsession with romantic/sexual love and with the pursuit of wealth and self-gratification, we are invited to reflect that perhaps family love has the most durable claim on our imagination after all.
Lonnie, who works as a bouncer at The Puma Club, loves April, whose dream of an independent life for herself and her daughter and whose work at The Puma Club prevent her from developing a romantic interest in anyone. Tina, the “house-mom” at the Club, helps provide emotional support for the strippers. It is ironic that these two people, whom April thinks she can count on the most, both let her down.
April lives with a widow in ill health named Jean, who takes care of Franny free of charge, though April wants to pay her. One morning when Jean needs to go to the hospital for tests, April thinks of calling in sick, but then decides to take Franny to the Club with her and ask Tina and Lonnie to help keep her safe in a room that is off-limits to the customers—a somewhat risky, somewhat reasonable plan. Things go well for awhile, and Franny is put to bed and falls asleep. She then wakes up, wanders off in search of her mother, and eventually encounters AJ. By this time he is drunk and has a broken wrist (inflicted by a bouncer when AJ touches a stripper, a violation of club rules). AJ knows Franny is at risk, and in his drunken state he wanders into a confused fantasy of rescue, puts her gently into his car and drives away from the Club.
As mentioned earlier, one of the many nice things about this novel is the way Dubus reports on the streams of thought of many of his characters. As he mingles these streams of thought, we notice a mannerism found in several of them that establishes a common humanity among some of his characters. We might call it a sort of tic in the interior monolog we all have running in our heads. An example from Franny is particularly touching. When she wakes up thirsty in the Club and sets out to find a drink, the narrator reports her flow of thoughts and feelings. Remembering the words of encouragement she has received from adults who love her, she thinks: “She’s not little. She’s not,” and later, “She’s strong. She is a big girl.” She remembers Jean saying, “You’re such a big girl.” (It is touchingly ironic that words of encouragement and praise from people she trusts help to put her in danger.)
We find these perhaps familiar gestures of self-validation and self-motivation (and sometimes rationalization) in the thought streams of several of the main characters. They emblemize a self-creative, self-affirming energy that is an essential element of human nature. This energy is contrasted by a destructive, dehumanizing aggression that characterizes much of the behavior in this novel. At this deeper level, Dubus poses the question of whether the human experiment will succeed or fail. Can humankind survive in this garden in which we have come into being? Or will we turn it into a wasteland?
The word “nothingness” occurs at six or seven key points in the novel, and develops this deeper meaning more fully. In this narrative of desire and yearning, what people seem to want most is to be real and special, not just part of the undifferentiated mass that our culture seems to push us towards. Not just nothing (a feeling that Emily Dickinson had whenever she encountered a snake, and describes as “the zero at the bone”). The fact that people can be persuaded to seek individual identity in stereotypical, mass-cultural ways would be comical if it were not so sad.
“The Garden of Last Days.” The title evokes the millennial thinking that has always bewitched the human mind, and that has sometimes caused mass hysteria. For instance it recalls “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” the well-known satirical painting done by Hieronymus Bosch in the Middle Ages, when many if not most people thought the end of the world was at hand. The people in the painting are grotesque, disturbing. The lessons it teaches are somewhat obscure, but we all do know that gardens require tending. “Cultivate your garden,” said Voltaire. Fair enough.