While House of Sand and Fog addressed the heartbreaking dilemma of a proud Iranian immigrant faced with the intractable demands of a young woman and a bureaucratic blunder with tragic consequences pre-9/11, The Garden of Last Days tumbles into a much darker landscape on the eve of America's loss of innocence. The internal drama is played out on the tawdry runway of a Florida Gulf Coast strip club, the Puma Club for Men, where April is forced to break her own strict rule, taking her three-year-old daughter, Franny, to work rather than miss an opportunity to salt away more money toward a future free of the decadent circumstances in which she now makes her living. April is a bit of an anomaly, with a well-thought out plan for escaping the downward spiral of such employment, most of the other dancers fortifying themselves with drugs and the occasional extra date with customers after the club closes. But April is thrown off the usual rhythm of her bifurcated life, the dayworld/nightworld of April/Spring when her landlady goes to the hospital unexpectedly with an anxiety attack.
Deeply troubled by this merging of two worlds, April has every reason to doubt the wisdom of her decision as the shift grinds on. Tina, who agrees to keep an eye on Franny while April dances is at best lackadaisical about Franny's care in a cramped office just off the women's dressing room, Tina easily distracted by the demands of her boss. Tiny Franny, in her pink pajamas, is by turns enthralled by her Disney movies and snacks, but needing constant reassurance that her mother will soon take her home. The following hours are filled with a heart-stopping chain of events portending disaster, the incessant beat of the DJ's selections as each stripper takes to the stage, the drunken shouts of customers paying for a show, the exchange of money for services, all under the guise of a good time. April is watched: by Louis, her lascivious boss; by Lonnie, a bouncer who views "Spring" as different from the others; by Bassam, a chain-smoking, intense young man from Saudi Arabia who walks straight into the embrace of evil, unable to resist the seduction of this foreign country's blatant disregard for modesty. On the cusp of a great personal sacrifice, Bassam covets April's attention in the private Champagne Room, willing to pay handsomely for his moral digression.
Fleshed out by the disaffection of a loud-mouthed customer, AJ, who is thrown out of the club for unacceptable behavior, a terrible chain of events is set in motion, AJ desperate to reclaim wife and son, a victim of his own excesses and a fixation on a wide-eyed dancer whose only interest is in his wallet. As AJ's transgressions pile up in contrast to his best intentions, pinballing over the wreckage of his past actions, Bassam focuses on April/Spring, alternately judging and lecturing while April cannot keep her eyes from the hundreds of dollars that will bring her dream that much closer. As the hours pass, a diverse cast divulges their secrets, the individual histories that have led to this fateful night on the Gulf Coast, the shattered dreams, the misspent promise of youth, lives sidetracked by necessity and bad choices, at the heart of it the slightly ranting of a fanatical Bassam, seduced by the imperfections of the flesh while embracing the distortions of his extremist education.
April otherwise engaged, a little girl awakens, alone and afraid, crying for her mother; a drunk, angry man notices, blundering through his own vague yearnings. And once more, through the minutiae of random struggles, a greater tragedy evolves. Certainly Dubus is a master of the unexpected confluence of events begun through the collision of human frailty and false pride, an impending cultural cataclysm that erases America's innocence. Based on fact, this novel's exploration of the seedy underbelly of modern culture is both intense and broad, Dubus once more shaking a distracted psyche and reminding us to pay attention. Luan Gaines/ 2008.