by Andre Dubus; New York, W. W. Norton and Company, 2008, 384 pages, $24.95
Dr. Sederer is medical director at New York State Office of Mental Health, New York City.
The French have an expression for a book like this: a roman de gare. In fact, a recent movie was released by that title by the great and seemingly ageless French director Claude Lelouche (of "A Man and a Woman" fame). Roman de gare refers to the sort of trashy novel you might pick up at a train station. If you want a fast read about strip clubs, hapless losers, wife beaters, loneliness, and aging and angry fundamentalists, this book is for you. Yet it will be a notable disappointment to those who read Dubus' previous novel The House of Sand and Fog. Although both books create a clash of Western and Eastern worlds and characters, the comparison stops there.
In The Garden of Last Days the cultural collision centers on April, better known as Spring when performing at a Florida men's club, Bassam al-Jizani and AJ Carey, with a variety of other woebegones thrown in to add texture to the story. April is an enterprising twenty-something mother of a three-year-old and has fled a loveless family and few prospects in New Hampshire to discover that she can become rich and powerful by dancing naked for strangers. Bassam is the youngest boy of 14 children from a respectable Saudi family, though considered by his father, a builder of mosques, to be slow and needing direction. AJ is your all-American loser who gets his Walgreens fellow employee pregnant, marries her, and discovers that the dream of family and home can be a very bad dream when you spend your days operating heavy equipment, your wife doesn't love you and gets fat and lazy, and your future promises more of the same.
They all come together one night in early September 2001 in the Puma Club where Spring dances. Bassam—days before flying the American Airlines plane out of Boston that rained terror on this country—comes to experience the world of the infidels and satisfy his forbidden sexuality, and AJ is a regular man seeking what he does not have at home. Only Bassam escapes the night without something broken, physical or emotional. Yet he is the most broken of all. Seeking "lasting respect" as a poor, nameless, and diminished Saudi man, he has been taken in by Al-Qaeda, trained, and promised the time of his life; all his sins will be erased and for his jihad sacrifice Allah will provide him with everlasting existence in a heaven populated with "women, chaste and chosen for him only, lying upon soft couches in lush gardens watered by running streams." Yet their collisions are only glancing, with no real effect upon one another, and are only a moment in time on a trajectory to their respective futures.
Too little is learned about Islam in this book. Take a look at V. S. Naipaul's wonderful essays in Among the Believers or Beyond Belief to find nuanced accounts of the varieties of Muslim religious experience. Take a look at Jessica Stern's work, including The Ultimate Terrorists, if you want a chilling report on the lives of murdering terrorists. Khaled Hosseini gave us a more compelling and richer story in The Kite Runner. Even on a train trip, this was a roman de gare not worth reading.