Dubus is a master of pricking the American psyche, writing of the seedy underbelly of society - in this case, the frantic stagecraft of a Florida strip club and its demanding, mostly male customers who are paying for a good time. In House of Sand and Fog, the pre-9/11 immigrant experience reveals a young woman’s self-obsession and the deficiencies of bureaucracy yield heartbreak; in The Garden of Last Days, the author’s canvas is broader and more treacherous.
When her grossly overweight but mostly generous landlady is unable to watch April’s three-year-old, Franny, the young dancer makes a critical error in judgment and brings Franny to work. There the child will be tended by Tina, the club’s scheduler, in Tina’s small office of the stripper’s changing room of the Puma Club for Men.
The first hint of trouble ahead occurs when April realizes the distracted Tina has forgotten her promise to look after Franny, but April/Spring has no time to make other arrangements, the thumping beat of her first number already calling April to the stage.
A dancer who doesn’t fit the mold of drug-abusing, after-hours favors of the other strippers, April has a financial goal that will provide freedom from this demeaning life. Meanwhile, she carefully separates nightworld from dayworld, only tonight breaking her cardinal rule of bringing her precious daughter into this terrible place.
While Franny is by turns mesmerized by her Disney movies and demands for her mother, April steps into the netherworld of the Puma Club for Men, on this critical night given an opportunity to make hundreds of dollars in a private room with a customer of Middle Eastern descent.
Bassam has walked straight into the arms of evil, justifying his moral transgressions on the eve of a great mission of jihad, giving in to the seduction of the West where modesty is flaunted by brazen foreigners who have no idea of the depth of their depravity. Now Bassam sits at the throbbing heart of this decadence, by turns questioning and lecturing April, judging and desiring.
A diverse cast of characters populates this novel, particularly the out-of-control excesses of AJ, who is thrown out of the club for improper advances. AJ sets the plot in motion, the crux of the coming crisis as he pinballs through the night in search of solace for his bleeding heart, his separated wife and child, his elderly mother, and a job he despises.
Fueled by alcohol, it is AJ who first sees the tiny girl in her pink pajamas in the club’s kitchen, crying for her mother. But other characters reveal lifelong disappointments, a heady mix as life wears down the best intentions, leaving a trail of lost dreams and failed expectations.
As the music throbs and April anguishes over the well-being of her daughter in the care of another, Bassam simmers with hate and confusion, AJ cries against injustice, and fate plays out its hand. Soon the world will change irrevocably, April shattered by the consequences of her impulsive decision, AJ humbled by his grossly inappropriate actions, Bassam a willing participant in his own demise. And the world grinds on, subtly altered.