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The end game

The Garden of Last Days A Novel Andre Dubus III W.W. Norton: 538 pp., $24.95

June 22, 2008|James Gibbons | James Gibbons is an associate editor at the Library of America.

"TERRORIST stag parties." This leering phrase was how the Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal.com, in October 2001, characterized widely reported visits by the Sept. 11 hijackers to strip clubs in Las Vegas and Florida. Their fundamentalist strictures notwithstanding, these supposedly devout men were reputed to have indulged in lap dances and other pleasures of the flesh in the weeks before the attacks. Seven years on, much remains ambiguous about the hijackers, and it's not clear how much credence these accounts deserve.

The 9/11 Commission Report makes no mention of strip clubs, however, nor does "Perfect Soldiers," Los Angeles Times reporter Terry McDermott's thoroughly researched 2005 book about the hijackers. McDermott offers the useful observation that "there were all sorts of retrospective sightings of the group or individuals within it. [Mohamed] Atta, in particular, with his distinctive and later well-publicized face, was seen everywhere. Or, at least that is what people remembered afterwards." Nearly as interesting as the hijackers' precise whereabouts is the psychic need that prompted many people, in the wake of Sept. 11, to believe they had seen the attackers, sometimes in seedy locales that would discredit their holy-warrior pretensions of spiritual discipline and purity.

Still, the hijackers may well have debauched themselves; who can say for sure? McDermott writes that "several of the Saudi men in Boston made a series of telephone calls trying to arrange for prostitutes on the last night. In the end, they thought the prices were too high and didn't employ anyone." Andre Dubus III, author of the bestselling "House of Sand and Fog," accepts the sex-club anecdotes as genuine sightings -- or, at least, as plausible enough to provide the foundation for "The Garden of Last Days," a big, uneven novel with aspirations it can't quite fulfill. Claiming in a note accompanying the novel's press kit that he has "stayed loyal to the historical record," Dubus has fashioned a tale that takes as a crucial episode the encounter between April Connors, a Florida stripper who performs at the Puma Club for Men under the stage name Spring, and a Sept. 11 hijacker, a composite figure named Bassam al-Jizani, on the night of Sept. 6, 2001. Mohamed Atta, called "the Egyptian" and "Amir," appears as the coldly single-minded jihadi directing the mission, and Osama bin Laden himself (as "Abu Abdullah") makes a cameo in one of Bassam's recollections.

Dubus has said that he "had no desire to write about September 11th," which makes his purported fealty to the historical record all the more puzzling. The impression of close adherence to fact is bolstered by his inclusion of verbatim transcriptions from papers the hijackers left behind. But if we're to accept that we're reading a fictionalized documentary of the days leading up to Sept. 11, then the conflicts Dubus creates within Bassam -- primarily, and relentlessly, his self-lacerating war against his sexual proclivities, but also his resentment toward Atta and a nascent sense of estrangement from the other terrorists -- are drained of tension. And although rendered in microscopic (indeed, prurient) detail, Bassam's two-hour session with April in one of the Puma Club's private rooms is an episode of fleeting but portentous contact -- "Someday, Insha'Allah," he tells her, "you will know me. . . . Everyone will" -- that can never evolve into a genuine relationship, despite his obsession with her.

Converging with the Sept. 11 plot line is the story of the disappearance of April's 3-year-old daughter, Franny, while she is entertaining her terrorist customer. The customary baby-sitter -- her kindly landlady, Jean -- has been hospitalized to undergo tests for recurring panic attacks, so April, unable to stay away from a "big money night, seven to eight hundred take-home," brings Franny to work and asks a co-worker to look after her. Sex clubs being what they are, this arrangement is bound for trouble, and unsurprisingly the toddler wanders off and is whisked away from the club's parking lot by AJ Carey, a sulking construction worker who has already imbibed several drinks too many.

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