Set on the west coast of Florida from Thursday, September 6, through Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the ironically entitled The Garden of Last Days focuses on the sleazy netherworld of the Puma Club for Men, a strip joint on the outskirts of Sarasota. Five characters share their stories during the time leading up to the catastrophe at the World Trade Center, and as their lives intersect and overlap with each other, they create a broad panorama of life's darkest side with all its personal challenges. As author Andre DuBus III individualizes the characters, they become a microcosm of hopes and dreams, mistakes and failures, and, in some rare cases, triumphs against insuperable odds.
April Connors, the mother of three-year-old Franny, strips at the Puma in order to save money so she can buy a house for herself and her daughter, refusing to resort to prostitution and keeping her head high as Spring, an exotic dancer. Her elderly landlady, Jean, a widow with heart trouble, who babysits for Franny, adores Franny and treats her like her own, but when she checks herself into the hospital, April has no childcare and has to take Franny to the Puma Club. Lonnie, a bouncer, rigidly enforces the "hands-off" policy of the club, sadistically enjoying the mayhem he wreaks if someone steps over the line. AJ Carey, a heavy equipment operator, arrives at the Puma depressed, after his wife gets a restraining order against him. Drawn to Marianne, one of the dancers, AJ is outraged when Marianne turns off, and he is ejected from the club.
The last character at the Puma, the "elephant in the room" of this novel, is Bassam al-Jizani, a young Islamist trained for a September 11 mission. Bassam, naïve, is determined to find out as much about women as possible until the day of his mission arrives. Before the night is out, April's decision to bring Fanny to the Puma will be the mistake of her life.
DuBus gives the characters' backgrounds, their lives as children, the values they have been brought up with, their relationships with parents and/or siblings, and their marriages. The reader feels s/he understands the characters as they struggle to make sense of the disaster which befalls Franny. The suspense builds, not about 9/11, but about the small world of the Puma Club, and by the end of the novel, everyone's world has changed. Though the novel is a compelling read, some readers may question the author's inclusion of Bassam. Although some of the 9/11 terrorists visited a club like the Puma, it feels somewhat opportunistic, to me, to have such a character inserted in this novel, which is primarily about the lives of the other characters at the Puma.
Bassam is not integral to the plot, except in showing the contrast between his restrictive life and the free, but misery-filled, lives of April, Franny, Lonnie, AJ, and Jean. Passages about the lack of religion in the lives of some of the characters show the contrast between their lives and that of Bassam, but these passages do not seem to be part of a coherent, well-developed theme. Though some readers may be attracted to this book because they want to "understand" something about the 9/11 terrorists, I'm not sure what the author gained, thematically, by including Bassam in this plot. n Mary Whipple