In a Sarasota strip club, a young woman who calls herself Spring slithers onstage late. Usually she can shift into smiling oblivion as she dances, but tonight she's distracted because her babysitter is ill and her little daughter is backstage.
The sitter, Spring's landlady Jean, is so worried about the child spending her mother's shift in the club that she sneaks out of a hospital bed to try to rescue her.
In the club's parking lot, a drunken customer named A.J. seethes over being kicked out because he got too friendly with a stripper, and he just knows she really, really likes him.
Inside, a tall, quiet bouncer named Lonnie keeps watch on all of the women, but he watches Spring a little more carefully.
And in the audience another man watches Spring too, an unlikely customer with his pockets full of $100 bills. He calls himself Mike, but in a few days people all over the world will know his true name.
The date is Sept. 6, 2001.
In his stunning new novel The Garden of Last Days, Andre Dubus III begins with a historical enigma — that several of the 9/11 hijackers spent time and money in Florida strip clubs in the weeks leading up to the attacks — and creates a richly imagined novel driven by an almost unbearable sense of dread.
Dubus is the author of House of Sand and Fog (a finalist for the National Book Award) and the son of the late short story writer Andre Dubus.
Speaking at the BookExpo America convention in Los Angeles in May, Dubus said his first inkling of this book came in the days just after 9/11. "I had this image in my head of cash on a bedroom bureau. I didn't know why."
He came to realize that the image was "planted in my brain as the smoke cleared and we found out these guys had gone to strip clubs" despite their fundamentalist religious beliefs.
Dubus said he began to wonder about the women who had danced for them, "what it would be like when they found out."
The Garden of Last Days is the stunning result. Dubus masterfully weaves together the stories of Spring, Jean, A.J., Lonnie and Mike, a.k.a. Bassam, with alternating chapters from their various points of view.
What they have in common, besides their intersection at the Puma strip club on Washington Boulevard, is deep loneliness. Onstage, Spring is an object of desire, "just one working part of a large and necessary machine." At home, she is April, a single mother rejected by her family. She adores Franny, her sunny 3-year-old, but never has enough time with her.
Jean is a well-off but lonely widow, Lonnie a drifter made utterly cynical by his work, A.J. an abusive husband fueled by anger at his wife, who has a restraining order against him, and sick with longing for his little son.
And then there is Bassam, a fictional character who is based on several of the real hijackers. Dubus has said that as he wrote the novel he long resisted writing in the young Saudi's voice, afraid he was not "emotionally and spiritually up to the task of inhabiting the psyche of a character based on those who did us such harm."
He does it, though, and to chilling effect. April's path crosses Bassam's when he pays for a dance in a private room. He wants one thing most of her customers want — to know her real name, as if that will create some magical intimacy.
But he doesn't want sex, which is against the rules; he doesn't even want her to dance. He wants to look at her, talk to her. For two hours he keeps dropping $100 bills on the table, and she can't walk away, worried as she is about Franny.
All that money seems like ashes when she finds that the woman she asked to watch Franny has left the child alone, and she's nowhere to be found.
Soon the frantic April is running screaming through the parking lot, the cops are closing down the club, and A.J. is wandering the roads of Manatee County on the way to a whole lot of trouble.
Franny's disappearance is a small-scale emergency compared with what will happen on 9/11, but it mirrors that larger disaster in the way it stuns the people involved, making them feel unhinged from reality. It also brings out in some of them compassion and courage they didn't know they were capable of.
Dubus makes every character, no matter how despicable, intensely real, taking us inside their heads and hearts even when it is painful to be there.
His portrait of Florida is carefully observed as well, from the beautifully landscaped suburbs where no one knows their neighbors to the arid erotic-economic rituals of the strip club.
We see all of that through the eyes of people for whom it is home, and through the eyes of a man utterly estranged from it, enraged and yet seduced (and so more enraged) by a culture he finds inexplicable.
To Bassam, America is so alien that he is shocked when April wails over her missing child just as his mother did when one of her sons was killed: "How can this kafir love and fear losing in the same way as a good wife and mother under the Creator in the birthplace of Muhammad? How can this be?"
The reader, like April, feels the horror of this individual loss; unlike her, we know what will come as Bassam takes up his terrible mission.
This is not the first novel to tackle 9/11, and it won't be the last. But The Garden of Last Days, gripping, wise and heartbreaking, will be one of the best.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.