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piiskoor

Another fine mess

Reader fan critic teacher reader fan.

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The Garden of Last Days - Andre Dubus III To draw a quote from the book itself, this is one of those "And nothing happens by mistake" kind of narratives, every piss-poor choice by a character leading her or him down an overdetermined path toward melodramatic near- and actual tragedies (and some measure of cathartic redemption). Think "Crash," with a dollop of 9/11 thrown in to give the thing a bit more zeitgeistian heft.

I was able to take the hyperbole of plot in Dubus' last, big-selling _House of Sand and Fog_, because he does manage these flashes of strange insight that seem startling, that break away from the path carved by the march toward fate. E.g., a customer at the novel's main strip club "in an out-of-fashion tie" is "looking hard not at Retro's ass behind her leather shorts but at the back of her head, like that's where he wanted to be--in Retro's brain. To see if she thought about him at all." Great--and tells me something fascinating about men in such clubs. Of course, then Dubus goes on (and on, and on) telling me very precisely and explicitly what men in such clubs are thinking, and such insights drown in the wash.

Far too often, his characters are so determined by their fate that the writing is nothing but a thin recitation of details you expect, once you've drawn a quick bead on their type and the generic conventions toward which such types tend. Worse, you rarely get the kind of off-center characterization that reveals (like above), instead every character has a hectoring inner voice (which sounds suspiciously the same, no matter who's doing the thinking), and that voice hammers home every damn point about each character's frustrations, limited point-of-view, and inevitable misguided choices to be made soon. (But not soon enough. 500+ pages.) E.g., in this _Garden_ the hectoring inner voice of drunken, sort-of-misogynist, consumed-by-rage AJ is like one long recitation of things I knew the minute he appeared on the scene groping a stripper, so when he sees bugs flying into a bugzapper (and wonders how they could be so stupid) or imagines his life as a bad hand dealt to him (and all he can do is play the cards) or when his only companion is his F-150 (or whatever number--his bigass Truck), I wondered if Dubus actually knows any working-class, drunken, sort-of-misogynist, consumed-by-rage guys, or if he'd simply read the Writer's manual about how to write that character.

I'm clearly liking this less as my review goes on, and on.

Let's wrap up. Dubus clearly has the best of intentions, and his prose isn't the weakest of vessels. But even without the insertion of a 9/11 hijacker into the club, I would have found this difficult to believe, increasingly annoying to read, and ultimately impossible to care about. The 9/11 subplot underlines and italicizes and puts fifty exclamation points on the book's weaknesses. The hijacker Bassam's inner hectoring voice uses the occasional Arabic term (but often enough, and in obvious enough context, so as not to confuse), and his sort-of-misogynist, consumed-by-rage approach to America, like AJ's mindset broken from pure hate by flashes of empathy he doesn't know how to handle, struck me as both unincisive and a bit exploitative. Yet another 9/11 fiction that, despite some nod toward the cultural & religious dissonance and the geopolitical dimensions underlying Bassam's character, imagines the event as simplistic metonymy for a very conventional psycho-drama of domestic space and family life disrupted and torn apart.

Oh, and since the estimable Erik S complained about Richard Price's (over)use of dialogue to tell the tale in _Lush Life_ in his smart and reasoned review on this site, let me draw a comparison to Dubus' hamfisted use of interior monologue, a rush of prose meant to reveal so much about character and context that I felt like I was reading diary entries, not a novel. Give me dialogue, and some uncertainty about what's inside a character's head and behind her/his motives any day, man!