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One Writer's World

Review: The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III

Few books are worth a rating of 5 in my view, but this one rates a 10, if there were such a ranking. This is a brilliant immersion into the world of three people shuffled around unkindly by life, still struggling to find meaning and a path forward.


Alice is a young mother who takes a job as a stripper in a men's club to support her daughter and save enough for a house. She has pride, dignity, and a fierce determination. A.J. is separated from his wife by a judge who could not see, in A.J.'s view, how much he loved his wife and son. A frequent visitor to the club, he is dissolving into alcohol and debt and obsession. Bassam is a young man from the Middle East both drawn to and repelled by the licentiousness of the club and the people of America. You other characters get their own sections. Jean, a widow who lives below Alice and rents her the apartment, has little of interest in her life except for Alice's three-year-old girl. Lonnie is a bouncer at the club, a man who doesn't belong there by temperament but doesn't know where he else he can go. Deena, A.J.'s wife, struggled with the legal right to go to court against her husband, and her ambivalence of love for the man who saw something special in her, built them a house, and is devoted to their son. Virginia, A.J.'s mother, isn't blind to her son, but her love moves beyond that, to see the entire man he is.


The lives of Alice, Lonnie, and A.J. collide at the Puma Club for men when Alice brings her daughter to the club when Jean is unexpectedly hospitalized. The author spends a lot of time on the life for women who work in such clubs, what is expected, even required, of them, and what is demanded if they take a misstep and find themselves in debt to the owner. The ugly world is presented almost journalistically, with the coolness of a reporter, but the interior lives are vivid. The author has clearly done the research to understand the thinking of a young Muslim finding himself seduced by all that he considers evil, the work of Satan. There are moments of artistic beauty, as is to be expected from Dubus, but nothing impeded the story, which propelled this reader page after page.


There is no one day or moment when the story ends, as a reader expects. Instead we see the consequences of each character's decisions, choices, and opportunities reaching into the years beyond the month of crisis precipitated by meeting at the Puma Club. Each life's future is pitch perfect for that character, wholly satisfying and without sentimentality.

This book has numerous rewards for the careful reader—the details in each character's life, the different and diverse ways of thinking, the passage of time from scene to scene, day to day, the Florida landscape along the Gulf, the discovery of what's possible below the surface.

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