The Garden of Last Days, By Andre Dubus III

A stripper and a terrorist fail to find common ground

Andre Dubus III has a gift for characterisation, for getting inside the heads of his downtrodden Americans, but it is not enough to save this unwieldy and uneven novel. Effectively, there are two novels battling it out within these 500-plus pages, one about the state of the American underclass, the other about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Dubus never reconciles these threads.

The action mostly takes place on a single night in and around a Florida strip club, the Puma Club for Men, in early September 2001. We get umpteen different points of view, some of them superfluous, but the main action concerns April, a stripper who has had to bring her three-year-old daughter, Franny, with her to work. Visiting the club are AJ, a drunken and down-on-his-luck misfit, and Bassam, a Saudi national who is clearly about to be one of the 9/11 terrorists. Bassam takes April into the VIP room for a private dance, while AJ is ejected by a bouncer for touching one of the other girls, only to return later with revenge on his mind. When Franny is found to be missing from the back room she was supposed to be asleep in, all hell breaks loose.

All of this is recounted in excruciatingly minute detail, as Dubus attempts to ratchet up the tension. But for all the build up, the plot is telegraphed well in advance and the resolution of Franny's disappearance is disappointingly anticlimactic. Then there is the problem of Bassam. When Dubus is inside April's or AJ's heads, he is fantastic at detailing their motivations and desires, their worries and fears.

The same cannot be said of Bassam. Dubus has clearly done his research, but he doesn't wear it lightly. All the Arabic phrases and prayer details in the world don't help get under Bassam's skin, and even after 500 pages in his company he seems like a stereotype, a caricature of the angry young Muslim fundamentalist. He has doubts about his cause and it's one of the reasons he's visiting a strip club (something based on apparent sightings of the real-life 9/11 terrorists), but he overcomes those doubts quickly, and the way in which Dubus delivers his narrative in a stilted English-Arabic hybrid only serves to further distance him from the reader.

There is ambition here but it remains unfulfilled, and the uneven levels of empathy Dubus creates in his characters, combined with slack plotting, fatally undermine his intentions.