Sometimes what you see in your peripheral vision matters more than what's visible straight on. At least that's the way Andre Dubus III looks at 9/11 in his latest novel, "The Garden of Last Days." Using a wide-angle view aimed at that senseless catastrophe, he indicts not only the evildoers but also a consumer society that cheapens people's lives.
But the social commentary isn't what makes this book hot. Instead, it's the titillating package and Dubus' empathy for his characters, which ensure that "The Garden of Last Days" will be a big hit this summer.
First, a bit of background: "The Garden of Last Days" establishes, once and for all, that Dubus is his father's son. The late Andre Dubus was known for his pessimistic short stories (his "In the Bedroom" was turned into one of my favorite recent movies). Andre III hinted at the same darkness in his brooding bestseller/movie, "The House of Sand and Fog." This novel clinches the legacy.
"The Garden of Last Days" unfolds mainly in a Florida strip club just days before the Twin Towers fell. Here -- in the dark corners where lonely men bring their $20s and young women bring their bodies to charm the money out of their hands -- a culture clash of colossal proportions is cast in microcosm on the eve of its most searing evocation.
The cast includes one soon-to-be terrorist and three innocents whose lives skid along on the seedy margins of American society: stripper April Connors, divorced mother of 3-year-old Franny; Lonnie, the Puma Club's bouncer, and A.J. Carey, truck driver and strip club patron.
All come together on the night April brings her daughter to work because her usual baby-sitting arrangement falls through. Tucking her daughter in the back office, she adopts her work persona, Spring, and joins the succession of women who perform on stage wearing a G-string and their fake "nightsmile." Each vies for applause and, more important, customers who will pay extra for some personal attention.
This is not a euphemism, at least technically: The club sells companionship, not body contact. But it's a free country, isn't it? And deals can be made when strippers meet male patrons in the Champagne Room.
For April, this is degrading work, but it's not hard, and the money is so much better than what she earned making sandwiches down the road. "She didn't have to act like she loved them, just smile and curl her finger at them to follow and they did."
But on the night when Franny's drowsy presence is foremost on her mind, April sees opportunity knock in the form of a foreigner who slaps down $100 bills for her time and makes cryptic remarks she doesn't understand. Bassam, a Muslim from Dubai, is fascinated and repelled as he touches the scar left by the surgery when Franny was born.
"People like you go to hell, April," he says, staring at her naked body. "You will not see me even once more."
For Bassam, a Muslim handpicked to plow a plane into a Manhattan landmark, this encounter is the exclamation point to his "time of living so haram," so sinfully. Stoking a hatred weakened by the Florida heat, he shakes off what his father said, that jihad "is a struggle within yourself, that is all. It is the struggle to live as Allah wishes us to live." No, he tells himself, "she will burn, they will all burn."
As April eyes Bassam's money, the truck driver A.J. runs across little Franny, sleepy and confused and wanting her mother. In an unthinking instant, he makes a decision that will turn this sultry evening upside down, bringing cops and the bright lights of the law to this sleazy outpost -- and to Bassam.
True or false, Bassam plays to the stereotype. Dubus deals with this problem by keeping the action moving, switching point of view so that the story is told by various characters, including Jean, April's landlady, and Deena, A.J.'s ex. Dubus plays on the media-hyped fear of perverts on every corner, but that's not what you see beneath that glossy surface: It's people reaching out for tenderness and love.
That's one irony Dubus exploits. And here's another: the contrast between Bassam, an outsider whose visceral hatred for this country is built on theories and religious zeal, and April, A.J. and Lonnie, who actually live the reverse side of the American dream but assume they're entirely to blame.
Ellen Emry Heltzel is co-author of the book "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures," due out this fall. She can be found at www.thebookbabes.com.