In the Age of Ugly, Andre Dubus III Takes on Beauty: A review of The Garden of Last Days

By Laura McCullough

Sure to be controversial, The Garden of Last Days, Andre Dubus III’s new novel rises above any petty attacks political or religious ideologues may hurl at it; it is a work of art discovered and rendered with no averting of the artist's eye. Anyone who read House of Sand and Fog will not be surprised that Dubus doesn't flinch, but in this novel, Dubus moves beyond the kind of reportage he did with his characters before. In House he painted what he saw in his characters detail by detail and let this accrual transfer character to the reader; no pervasive world view underscored the story. In Garden, however, the world view under girding the story is both unabashed and empathetic at the same time. Not forgiving, characters are exfoliated in all their human frailty, but it’s clear we’re all indicted in the condition of human vulnerability.

Bad choices were key to the plot and to understanding character in House, and once again, in The Garden of Last Days, Dubus’ characters make them, astonishing ones, ones we at first can’t believe: to rescue a lost child when in fact it will look like kidnapping, to choose a job as a single mom that is at best unstable and dangerous, to commit to a religious/political road that can only end in one’s own death. These large decisions are in confluence with small ones, and there, underneath the story, Dubus  delivers the notion not that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but rather with unintended consequences.

Set in Florida just prior to 911, the book chronicles a collision of characters, the confluence of their lives both in terms of their interior landscapes as well as literally. The construction is such that there are two juxtaposed triangles of gender: April (aka Spring when she dances at a strip club) set up as the Madonna/whore, the elderly Jean (as the wise woman/hag), and the twin characters of AJ's mother and his wife, Deana comprise the female side. On the male side are AJ (who tries to be a good dad and worker), Lonnie (the intelligent outsider), and Bassam (who is the terrorist, literally, but also acts as the moral quester in the novel).

Dubus manages his story in the interstices of the public and the private, first by invoking 911, the most recent public, historic wound of America and then by layering it with the private wounds and yearnings of average people. There are no big guns here, no heads of terrorist organizations, no politicians, just you and me regular folk, those that  real history usually ignores, but is ultimately made of. Even the violence in the novel is small; 911 happens off-page and out of story, but decapitation and rape and other quiet violations clearly accrue toward the larger historical destruction. In Dubus’ world, however, the lens is on these private abrogations of dignity, the physical, emotional, and psychological ones, as well as those of the soul: the violence done when people are disenfranchised for reasons of class, economics, gender, etc., but even more subtly, dislocated from meaningful work and livelihood, another theme in the architectural underpinnings of the novel.  

            Violence is exfoliated, and mundane violence -- sexual, cultural, personal (rape, a beheading), the poverty of violence -- is set against the more romanticized (and idolized) large historical violence (in this case, 911). But there is nothing didactic about this, and when April is asked why she dances for money, the issue of violence is taken to a new place when, late in the novel, she discovers why she really does it which reveals the violence of living without meaning in one's life, of feeling agency-less, purposelessness. This is not equated, however, with religious belief, which would have been moralizing on the part of the author, which Dubus never succumbs to.

In a subtle, but hugely important scene, Bassam reveals to his father that he will undertake jihad. His father explains that Bassam has been fooled into thinking he understands jihad, and offers an explanation of it that is at once simple and profound and, I suspect, controversial, as well. This conversation in the novel is an example of one of many ways in which the parent-child relationship and its many fraughtnesses is explored as a theme. Central to the plot is the failing of parents and the mythologies--across cultural lines--about parenthood that prevail. Dubus knows deeply the Francis Bacon quote, "He that hath wife and child hath given hostages to fortune."

The title of the novel evokes both the Christian Garden of Eden and the eschatalogical end-times/end-of-days, and while no one knows where this garden was, or even if there was one, most religious traditions locate it somewhere in the Middle East (though Latter Day Saints believe it’s in Missouri), the famously fraught birth place of  Christianty, Judaism, and Islam. The Garden in these religions is seen literally as well as figuratively in terms of a kingdom, paradise, a return to a state of innocence or godliness. And a garden, quite literally, in the land of heat and sand, is a symbol of fertility, abundance, and life. Dubus locates his story in another warm location: the Gulf Coast of Florida in the USA, mere days before the emotionally apocalyptic 911.

If it were as simple as offering kudos for using tropes effectively and managing multi POV and plots, The Garden of Last Days would still be a real achievement, but Dubus tackles some of the deepest concerns of what it means to be human, a stripping away, an interrogation of gender and class and culture, so something raw and, perhaps, vulnerable is left, a bit trembly, and in danger. And, too, it's about beauty, something no one wants to talk about in this age of addiction to the ugly. Dubus takes on the ugly and arrives at beauty. It's a wonderfully restrained, but brimming moment in the end in the garden. It’s got jouissance, the term Barthes borrowed from Lacan to describe the literature that requires active reading rather than passive, the codes and construction of which must be surrendered to in order for the reader to come into congress with the worldview, hence, pleasure, riding on the paradox of joy and pain, the acceptance of an imagined world and characters that can make the reader, alone in a room in a chair with, say, a glass of wine and a bag of chips, all’s right with the world in that day and that moment, succumb to tears anyway. It’s frail, baby, and ain’t it beautiful? Bravo.